As the independent film movement has grown, flourished and changed over the past 30 years, so too has the indie film festival circuit. There have always been a few stalwarts, such as Cannes (which is an entirely different animal in the film festival world), the Ann Arbor Film Festival (which caters to the more experimental side of the craft) and the San Francisco International Film Festival, but it wasn’t really until the Sundance Film Festival (founded in the late 1970s as the Utah/U.S. Film Festival) and the Toronto International Film Festival rose to prominence–as the indie film movement hit its stride in the mid-1990s–that filmmakers fully realized the importance of screening their films at festivals.
Of course, the landscape of the industry has evolved radically in that time. As studios consolidated and stopped making as many smaller films as they had in the previous decades, and filmmaking technology became cheaper and more accessible, indie filmmakers increasingly embraced the DIY ethos. Festivals began to spring up to showcase their work; the studios then jumped back in, seeing a way to engender themselves to the movement. While most indies don’t make a large profit (if any at all) for studios, it keeps directors and actors happy, and who knows, there might be a hit in there somewhere.
This has resulted in a blurring of the lines, where studio executives dabble in playing indie alongside the filmmakers screening at a festival who would have loved to have had the catering budget from “The Green Lantern” to fund their entire film. This has raised the profile of several film festivals, which ultimately helps the true low budget filmmaker, as it gives them crucial exposure in trying to get their film a distribution deal.
Acquisitions are no longer only handled at what are considered the “major” festivals any more. A festival like Slamdance, which is held in Park City, Utah at the same time as Sundance and which has the reputation as being edgier—a return to true indie filmmaking, if you will—is no longer viewed as the “other” film festival in ski country, according to Eleanor Burke, who, along with husband and co-writer/co-director Ron Eyal, recently screened their film “Stranger Things” at the Woods Hole Film Festival.
“There’s a lot of crossover between Sundance and Slamdance, actually,” Burke said. “Slamdance has more clout than it used to. And a lot of industry people who come to Sundance also come to some of the films at Slamdance.”
For many filmmakers with indie roots who have tasted mainstream success, going low budget on their film and hitting the festival circuit gives them a chance to make their project with some autonomy and still have a chance to get a feel for how their film will play in front of an audience. James Wan, who directed the original “Saw,” which then went on to become a hit franchise, took “Insidious,” which was made on a fairly modest budget, on the festival circuit last year. After his second film, “Dead Silence,” was made as a studio project, he said premiering the film at Toronto was slightly different than the first time he did it with “Saw.”
“I would almost say that the first time we did it, we knew nothing of the process,” Wan said. “We knew nothing about it, right? The first time we were almost oblivious to things, we just sort of went along with it so even though we were nervous, we weren’t really sure how things worked. This time we were just as nervous, except we knew how things work.”
For filmmakers like Wan, the festival experience is not the same as those who have never had a distribution deal or major exposure. Wan and his co-writer, Leigh Whannell, were booked solid doing press as they took “Insidious” from festival to festival, often flying in a few days before the film would screen and flying out before the festival was over.
“It’s usually really tough, especially with South by Southwest (which is where FSM interviewed Wan earlier this year-ed.) because our film is about to come out and we’re doing a lot of press and promotion for it so even though I have a lot of friends with their films here I feel really bad because I want to go check them out.”
But for other indie filmmakers, it gives them a chance to connect and network with people going through very much the same thing as they are. Most filmmakers, like Chris Metzler, who co-directed the documentary “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone” with Lev Anderson, work with a small budget that means they must serve as the directors, producers, and public relations agents. They operate practically in a vacuum, so a film festival may give them the chance during the long grind of seeking distribution to take a breather.
“We premiered the film at the L.A. Film Festival, and from then on we’ve screened it at about 80 festivals so far around the world including SXSW, etcetera, so we’ve been on the road and trying to get it into as many festivals as we can,” Metzler said. “One, is we just need to get the film out in front of audiences but two, it’s kind of nice to socialize and chat with other filmmakers and see what they’re doing. Because filmmaking is a little bit of an isolated profession sometimes, so it’s you and your team and then all the other filmmakers are doing the same kind of thing. So the festivals are a good way to get together and see what other people are doing.”
Most film festivals feature several categories of competition; many offer either cash awards or an equivalent value in post-production services for the winners. David Nordstrom, who brought his film “Sawdust City” to the L.A. Film Festival earlier this year, was put into a situation that, after a week of camaraderie, he was now pitted against his newfound friends going after the same awards. He likened it to being on a reality TV show.
“It’s kind of hard navigating all the different filmmakers, especially when you’re in competition,” Nordstrom said. “You’ve been thrown into competition with people that you’ve really come to like and you like their films and for some reason you’re still in competition and you really don’t care if you win or not, but you still have to care—it’s this weird reflex. You feel like you’re on ‘Top Chef’ or something. They drag you out and take you to this awards brunch and make us all sit there and slowly crank up the suspense. It’s a bit cruel because we’re all basically friends now.”
And while some filmmakers (especially the first-timers) have an adjustment period to this process—so much for fostering all-inclusiveness in the world of low budget filmmaking—Metzler doesn’t have a problem with it and sees it all as a part of trying to get his film out there.
“It’s not as weird as you would think,” he said, referring to being pitted against other filmmakers in competition categories. “And I think that’s mainly because I’ve gone through it a couple of times. For instance, I had an earlier film, ‘Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.’ It’s this offbeat environmental comedy, which we screened at Woods Hole, and I think the first couple of festivals that I went to, you’re like, ‘oh I want these awards and I want press and these are the things that are going to help make or break my film,’ and after a couple of festivals what you realize is that first of all, I like these people and filmmakers, so I’ve got to set aside any jealousy…I might be feeling and realize that our film is just like any other film and it’s kind of a long road and everybody has their chance to shine. As long as you look at it as kind of a long term sort of situation, it all balances out and you can kind of enjoy the ride a little bit more.”
As Metzler noted, it is increasingly coming down to knowing what vibe a particular festival is offering. A festival like Tribeca has a distinctly New York flavor, while SXSW is noted for its eclectic blend of music and film. It is easy for indie filmmakers to become discouraged about the reception of their film, but they have to remember to take it in stride on their run through the festival circuit.
“I think the other thing that you come to realize is when you make a film it’s not…obviously you want as many people to enjoy it as possible, but when you’re making independent films like we are, look, there are specific sorts of people, and audiences that the film resonates with and sometimes your film is going to resonate more than others. And other times it’s still going to make an impact but it might not make the same impact as somebody else’s because the region, the taste of the festival, or whatever it might be. The particular mood of the jurors that day, you know?”