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Film Festivals

The Chicken and Egg of  Finding The Money To Market Your Documentary

The Chicken and Egg of Finding The Money To Market Your Documentary

In Documentaryland, there is rarely ever enough money to make your film. Therefore, to think about investing money into marketing it would be absurd because until you have an excellent film, nobody should or would want to market it. You can’t put the proverbial cart before the horse.

Once we understand this premise that independent films are (relatively) expensive endeavors and that crews are generally underpaid to make them (because they're oftentimes passion projects), why then do film funds and grants frequently require you to answer detailed questions about how you plan to market your film — even when you’re applying for production funding? The answer is simple: THIS MAKES NO SENSE.

If you had enough money to make and market your film, you wouldn’t be applying for film funds and grants. Enough said.

But alas, if you do have to market your film to take it to film festivals, it is expensive. Here’s a breakdown of some costs — none of which most teams will ever be able to pay for without a generous sponsor, philanthropist, non-profit, or or impact producer attached to the project:

  1. $2,500 to apply for film festivals — assuming you apply to 25 and they cost $100 each.

  2. $10,000 for a festival publicist to ensure your film is seen by critics who attend festivals.

  3. $1,000 to $2,000 per film festival for travel, depending on festival location relative to you.

  4. $3,000 to design and print posters, flyers, and other materials.

  5. The costs of creating an impact campaign ranging from a web site to actions that must be taken — that start with getting the festival seats filled.

Alas, you shouldn’t think about marketing your film until it is a film. Your focus as a filmmaker has to be laser- focused on making the best film possible. Sales and marketing is a very important side of the coin, but until your film is made properly, you shouldn’t be thinking about this coin. I’ll explain more on this in future posts.

Then, there’s the Hail Mary commercial option: Yes, if you make a commercially viable film and then sell your film to, say, Netflix, they will happily pay for you to attend a few festivals as it’s good publicity that their publicity teams can support in big ways, e.g. my film AMANDA KNOX launching at TIFF in Toronto in 2016 or Icarcus playing at the 2017 Sheffield International Documentary Festival. But again, this is a BEST CASE SCENARIO and likely won’t happen with most film projects.

I’ll repeat my mantra again and again: MAKE THE BEST FILM POSSIBLE AND THEN YOU CAN FIND THE MONEY TO MARKET IT.

The Berlinale: A film festival experience like no other.

The Berlinale: A film festival experience like no other.

If there is one film festival that I love going to, it is the Berlinale. Yes, Berlin is absolutely freezing in the winter, but it is also incredibly cozy. There is a je ne sais quoi about Berlin that I frequently try and fail to put my finger on. First off, it is incredibly less expensive than most other European cities. This means that you can live a bit of a high life for a few days while there. The films I saw, including The Lost City of Z and Viceroy's House, were of course among the best in the world. The film market, was also buzzing with people from all over the world who want to buy the world's best films. And, of course, the parties at night are unlike any other. From the BFI to various Polish parties I attended, a few days in Berlin is just as good as going to a warm, sunny place. 

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As IndieWire writes, "As ever, the annual fest is playing home to dozens of feature films and short offerings, with picks aplenty from both modern masters and fresh faces. The Berlinale often breeds some of indie film’s most unexpected and unique standouts, so if it’s at the fest, it’s likely worth a look."

My favorite documentary at the festival was For Ahkeem, about an African-American girl growing up in St. Louis. Shot over many years, the film highlights many of the struggles of growing up in America. The Berlin Film Journal writes, "For Ahkeem follows Daje Shelton, a young seventeen-year-old girl who is struggling to find her way in a social environment enriched by a feeling of cultural failure and the constant struggle that accompanies the process of dreaming for a better life. At the beginning of the film Daje makes a statement: “People been labelling me a bad kid all my life. You don’t have to really do nothing, people just expect it. So you start to expect it yourself.”

It continues, "By claiming this, Daje sets the tone for the documentary, making the audience aware that her story is unique but also part of a bigger picture of what being young and left behind means. The film begins at the moment Daje gets expelled from school and sent to a court-supervised high school, which is her last opportunity to graduate and get her degree. It’s painful to witness fight -or-flight survival mode Daje can’t seem to escape, however by following her in a conscientious, intimate way, the documentary makes an important point about the cultural trauma of what it means to grow up in a world where it is very likely that you will be shot before you reach adulthood."