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How the web is changing film festivals

By Jenna Renaud

Howcast Associate Producer

This post is part of our ongoing Howcast series on film making in the digital age. Today Howcast's Jane Renaud invites Kim Jose and Livia Bloom to talk about how the web is changing film festivals.

In 2007, Kim Jose co-founded Elephant Eye Films, a New York based film company that produces, sells and theatrically distributes feature films. Elephant Eye has assembled a prestigious slate of projects from some of the world’s most distinctive filmmakers including Lee Daniels, John McNaughton, Spike Lee and Sebastian Silva. Livia Bloom is a curator of cinema retrospectives. She is the Director of Exhibition & Broadcast for Icarus Films, and her writing and interviews regularly appear in film journals including Cinema Scope, Film Comment, and Filmmaker Magazine.

When I graduated film school in 2005, I had a fairly straightforward game plan: 1) submit a student short film to festivals, 2) gain acceptance to those festivals, 3) make posters, postcards, DVDs, and maybe a website with a trailer to promote the film.

Five years later, that plan is out the window. It’s not news that for many filmmakers, YouTube and other video sites represent the primary way to reach an audience. As we here at Howcast put together our ‘Modern 101 for Digital Filmmakers,’ I knew I wanted to investigate how the rise of web video has changed the role of film festivals, particularly for emerging filmmakers.

On the one hand, a filmmaker in Salem, OR no longer depends on the festival programmer in Austin, TX for a venue: she can upload her short the day she finishes editing and start targeting viewers directly. But it’s yet unclear how online popularity translates into the kind of industry exposure, relationships and deals long associated with festival success. How do film festivals fit into a career strategy that now necessarily includes online promotion and distribution? And for the traditional “gatekeepers” -- festival programmers and film distributors -- how does web video inform programming and acquisitions?

We enlisted film producer Kim Jose, Co-founder Elephant Eye Films, and film distributor and writer Livia Bloom, Director of Exhibition & Broadcast for Icarus Films, to help us answer these questions.

How have festival submissions changed as web video has grown?
Livia Bloom: Film festival submissions and the number of film festivals themselves have grown exponentially as web video has grown. Also, online festival submission services have become prevalent, so charging a fee for each submission, which used to be rare, has become a viable and significant source of income for festivals.

Kim Jose: First, there are so many websites that bring awareness to festivals that would otherwise go unnoticed. From a distribution point of view, it is great to have access and knowledge of festivals on a regional scale. We can research and submit festivals quickly and easily in specific regional markets that are important to breaking out a small indie. These regional markets really can be a little indie’s bread and butter.

As more and more films--particularly short, independent, low budget films--become available online, has the function or value of the indie film festival changed?
LB: Movies becoming available "on demand” revolutionized the film world. Before that, if a movie played in your city, that generally meant it was being projected on a 35mm or 16mm print. You ran out to see it during its run or else, like a rare bird, you might never have the chance to see it again!

Is a festival ever less likely to screen a film that’s been widely viewed/promoted online?
LB: If a filmmaker grows a devoted following, that increases the chance of their films being widely distributed. Keep in mind, however, that content shifts a bit along with a shift in viewing space. A short that's popular YouTube might not translate well to television, your local movie theater, or an IMAX screen. The most competitive film festivals tend to require a global, continental, or national premiere. If a film is available in it's full version and full resolution on DVD or online, it's less likely to be selected for a prestigious film festival.

Now that everyone can distribute films online, do festivals serve a different purpose for filmmakers?
KJ: I think it is really important to set goals as a filmmaker before entering festivals. What do you want out of your festival experience? For a short film, you have made your calling card and should be searching for new people in film that will broaden your horizons from development executives to creative collaborators. The amount of festival laurels you have does not matter nearly as much as having your film seen by someone who will show you support and help you to the next level. As a feature filmmaker, distributors and festival programmers will be more of your target.

As our Modern 101 continues, we’ll continue to explore how emerging filmmakers can leverage online exposure with more traditional routes, like film festivals. Next week, we’ll be showing a case study of one short doc pursuing an online strategy. Stay tuned!