Navigating the world of film festivals

Will Massa, British Council Film, talks film festival strategy for emerging filmmakers and getting your film out there in the UK and international markets.

14 June 2016


Matimba: We’re here with another podcast from the BFI NET.WORK, I'm Matimba Kabalika. Our job at the NET.WORK is to discover, develop, and fund new and emerging filmmakers. So we wanted to bring you closer to some of the people who hold the most influence and have the best understanding of how the UK film industry works. Will Massa is the Senior Film Program Manager at the British Council. He got on his folding bike and came over to the BFI offices. We talked about festival strategies for emerging filmmakers, plus we bonded over our love of rap.
Hi Will.
Will: Hello, good morning? 
Matimba: Thanks for joining us. Couple of things before we go any further, can you confirm or deny reports that you have a secret skill as a rapper? 
Will: The only way to confirm it would be to do a rap, which obviously I can't, couldn't ever possibly do because it would be too mortifying. I don't know if it's a secret skill as such. I do like rap music, and when I drink too much, sometimes that love bursts out in uncontrollable ways, but I think it's a bit early in the morning to subject listeners to any kind of rap. 
Matimba: Okay, fine. So not today, but we will get you at some point. 
Will: When you least expect it, I'll be there rapping in your ear, Matimba. 
Matimba: I love it. So, Will, you work at the British Council which is primarily responsible...the film arm of the British Council is primarily responsible for overseeing the promotion of UK films and filmmakers internationally? 
Will: Yeah, absolutely. British Council is the UK's international cultural relations organization, and it does various different things. It has quite an extensive arts program, which film features in. And I'm in a team of seven people, each of us have various different responsibilities. We help our offices which are located all the way around the world. And some of us look after documentaries, and some of us look after features, and it's been my privilege over the last four or five years to look after short film. 
Matimba: Cool. And can you talk to us a little bit more about how what that looks like day-to-day? Because, obviously, lots of the short film activity includes the Shorts Support Scheme and Travel. 
Will: Sure, and the Travel Grant Fund. Yeah, no problem. So I think it's probably best to clarify straight off that we don't fund work, we don't invest in production. We're much more about the promotion and support of filmmakers right the way across the spectrum. In my particular case with short film makers, we take shots very seriously. We recognise that in the UK, and indeed in many other countries around the world, they form a kind of key part of a talent development strategy. So we like to think that we work well with other partners to help filmmakers, either funded through national agencies or not, to travel with their work, be in a context where they can professionally develop and promote themselves and their work, and that usually takes the form of short film festivals. We a have a fund that we co-manage with the British Film Institute called the Short Film Travel Grant Fund, and it's very simple. We have a list of around 50 short film festivals, and if you're a short film maker and you're selected into one of those festivals, you can apply to us for costs, to cover off travel and accommodation. We want to be able to make the difference for people to be able to go and travel long haul to some key events in the short film world and in the film world in general, so Sundance, Cannes, Berlin etc. 
On top of that kind of funding mechanism to help film makers travel, we also have a support scheme called the Shorts Support Scheme where we will proactively champion new work that we fund its travel to a selection of short film programmers and festival contacts that we have. We'll also organize some events closer to home to help connect new and emerging film makers to more established talent. We sometimes put together packages of film, specifically from within our catalogue, and tour them or screen them at venues both in the UK and internationally. Often short film makers are a demographic that can least afford to make that trip to Australia or the States, or the demographic that is new in production and therefore hasn't set aside part of its budget to travel off for festivals and distribution because, let's face it, budgets are tight and they want to get as much as possible up on screen. So we like to think that we can help them with that next step in terms of getting themselves out there, because once the film is made, there's still a whole two years you've got on your short to be out and about networking it, using it as a platform to develop yourself and promote yourself. 
Matimba: Yeah, that kind of leads nicely into my next question, which is about festivals and how they can often be the Holy Grail for filmmakers, especially in shorts, but all the way to features. So in terms of filmmakers who are yet to make a first feature, how important do you think it is to have a festival or have your short played at festival? How important is it that in your career? 
Will: To have had a short in a festival? 
Matimba: Yeah? 
Will: First of all, going to festivals is important, full stop. Because there is a whole ecosystem of festivals from dedicated short films festivals all the way through to feature film festivals where industry professionals are attending, where there are markets attached, where a film could be launched or promoted and kick started into the international market. To go there for the first time and understand what the competition looks like, where the bar is set in terms of how your work is, how to meet commissioners, executives, other people that are likely to play your film is invaluable. Festivals in a way act as filters, they act as gatekeepers, we're still very much in that era, I think, although there's lots to be said for having a work online etc. People are time-poor and they need a way to cut through all the content. So if a short film lands on your desk and you know that it's won a significant prize or award, you're slightly more likely to screen it on your laptop than perhaps the other 50 films that have piled up on your desk. 
Matimba: Beyond getting a film in a festival, which is obviously a great thing and, as you said, acts as a filter for people who have got lots of stuff coming in. What are the immediate benefits of attending a festival for filmmaker? For a first time filmmaker, where do you begin? 
Will: Yeah, I think research is your friend here really and other film makers, frankly. Places like Shooting People, online forums, the NET.WORK, and find out what kind of flavor of festival might be best for them. Festivals have different personalities, they have different teams of programmers with different tastes. European festivals or short films have a very distinct flavor relative to U.S. festivals. It's very interesting. Sundance Festival shows a lot of UK shorts, typically we have about eight or nine every year. Clermont-Ferrand, which is a massive short film event with a market attached, also shows about 8 to 12 UK shorts every year. We do very well in both of those, both key launch pads for a short film potentially, but very different flavors. And until you go to those festivals, it's quite hard to recognise that. But you can get your hands on old catalogues, you can do a bit of research and look into films that have played there. It's increasingly easy to find films that have gone to Vimeo now after they've ran their festival life cycle. So sitting down with a good old spreadsheet and researching the kind of festival you think your broad comedy might go in versus your indie animation can pay dividends, and might save you a lot of money and time in the long run. 
Matimba: Because submission fees can cost... 
Will: Yeah. Submission fees, they're an interesting...we've seen a kind of escalation of those in the past 10 years or so. Even our beloved UK short film festivals find themselves in a position where they feel compelled to charge. With entry fees, European festivals tend to charge less or not at all because they have strong state support on a cultural level, whereas the U.S. festivals have less of a culture of state support for cultural events so they feel compelled to charge. So a Sundance entry can cost $90. That may not seem like a huge outlay, but when you package it together with all the other festivals you're applying for over a six month or a year period, it can start to add up. So like you say, doing your research and working out and prioritizing a bit what kind of festivals you'd really like to launch at or you'd really like to screen at will probably help save you money, rather than kind of carpet-bombing. All the festivals, you can find them Withoutabox, which is a good resource to an extent, but it's not a substitute for a research. 
Matimba: I like carpet-bombing. I was going to say, "Don't submit silly." We can have the little hashtags, don't submit silly. 
Will: Well, yeah. Don't submit silly, I like that. 
Matimba: Don't carpet-bomb. 
Will: People get very hang up about festivals and screening, they're very disappointed and dejected. Rejection is part of the course with any short film. There's always going to be rejections involved. You'd be lucky if you got a one-in-five acceptance ratio, just because of what we've talked about with the different types of festivals, they have different personalities. It's very rare that there's one film that kind of fits all the different top quality festivals. But there are other ways to use your short to promote yourself either to financiers or to agents, it's a half conversation.  
I saw a really, really lovely short film the other day that was for...very much targeting the family and young person’s audience which is really great. There's not a huge amount of that work made, and they'd really nail the tone, I felt. And then I had a chat with the filmmakers about where they wanted to screen, and they said, "We should go for Cannes and Berlin." And I said, "Possibly Berlin in the generation section, which is for younger people. I don't feel like this is for Cannes." And then I asked them, "What do you want to do? What's your next move as a filmmaker?" And they said, "Well, we want to make a feature, and we very much want to make a feature in the vein of this film, which is family and young people." And I said, "The film festival circuit for short film isn't necessarily going to be the place you want to focus all your energies for this. You want to use this as a calling card, and not in a bad way that shorts can sometimes be just instrumental as a calling card, but I would use this as a calling card to knock on the doors of financiers or people that have expressed interest in making family friendly features, as a kind of mission statement saying, "This is the kind of work we want to make."" 
And I've seen other shorts that haven't had much festival exposure, for one reason or another, but have been very good for filmmakers in terms of getting them representation or getting under the nose of a commissioner somewhere else. So I think festivals are only part of the self-promotion strategy. 
Matimba: I think that's really good bit of advice because I think sometimes people feel festivals are the be-all and end-all. It's not, it's not, it's about having a strategy, and it's about knowing what that short's going to do for you as a filmmaker. 
Will: Yeah, I appreciate for filmmakers, it's frustrating sometimes not knowing why they might not have been selected in to a festival, but there are...if it's reassuring at all, there are always a number of possible reasons. It's actually quite rarely that the film just isn't good enough, it doesn't fit with the theme of the strand that the program was going for, that it might be too long to fit in a particular program. There are lots of reasons, and so filmmakers shouldn't be too dispirited and, like you say, shouldn't feel that festivals are the be-all and the end-all, they aren't necessarily. 
Matimba: So I want to know what are Will Massa's dos and don'ts when it comes to shorts. 
Will: I'll come to running time first, because I'm quite interested in this because I think there's a bit of a myth. Not a myth, but the way in which people talk about this can be a bit slightly misleading. People will often say, "The shorter you can make your short, the better and the more chance it has therefor of being selected into a festival." I don't think that's quite true. There are lots of festivals coming about, Clermont-Ferrand for example, or Uppsala or Tampere that play films way over 20 minutes, almost reaching the half an hour mark. The fact is, though, those films, when they're selected, they're really top-notch, they've been right for their running length. So I'm thinking of something like Keeping Up with the Joneses, Michael Pearce's film. It went everywhere. It was 29 minutes long. And it's just one of many examples whereby if you make something that fits its running time, that isn't kind of too baggy or isn't laborious or doesn't drag, and the narrative is tight, I think, frankly, people are entertained, and if it's properly structured, it can make a decent short film. 
In terms of kind of the best way to behave when submitting a film, I think there are multiple resources out there that now allow you to submit film very easily online. Things like Withoutabox, where you can submit to multiple festivals simultaneously. I think have your house in order, make sure you...this comes up time and time again, but have a great production still that somehow is emblematic of the tone and theme and visual intent of your film because a really good still is really important. It is the kind of first encounter people have. We're much more visual than we are text based these days, so see a good intriguing still is perhaps more likely to drive you towards a film that you want to see. If you then couple that with a really tight synopsis or logline, I think that's quite important. Think about those things and those assets. 
Don't get hung up at short film level about the fact that you've got a star in your film. Some festivals may care, but most programs, I think, don't care. I've seen plenty of short films with A-listers in that just don't happen to have successfully deliver their vision very well. And I know very few programs that would play a bad short with a star in it. So making a fuss and write it to people to say, "My short's starring XYZ." That's fine, but don't make too much of a ballyhoo about it, I would say. The other thing to say is...yeah, ballyhoo. Who said that since the 1930s? Let's bring it back. Ballyhoo. 
The other thing to say is, if you have relationships with programmers already because you've screened in a festival before, they are your friends, they want to track your progress. And in some cases like Cannes, for example...Cannes is very keen to if it's shown a couple of shorts in Director's Fortnight or Critics' Week over the years, you can be pretty sure that they're going to want to have first dibs on the feature if it's good enough for Cannes. They're going to want to own that relationship, they're going to want to say, "This is a talent that we broke to the world. We started doing it." And I think there's a balance to be struck between exploiting that relationship or making good on that relationship and pestering people, which is different. And you don't want to pester people, and constantly write to them and say, "Have you seen my short? Have you seen my short?" These are busy people with huge amounts of shorts to get through. Every credible that I know watches everything that they get. So you can rest assured that if you're applying to a decent festival, they are watching your work and they will give you a decision. 
Then pestering people for feedback if you haven't got in, for example, can be really quite different. It totally depends on the programmer. Some people seem to be willing to give brief bits of feedback, but others just can't because there's too many shorts submitted. So I think it is about striking that social balance as you would with any professional relationship, about looking at how you can make it work for you without being obnoxious or too heavy-handed with people. 
Matimba: Some Will Massa do's and don'ts. 
Will: Some nuggets. 
Matimba: Some nuggets. 
Will: And some ballyhoo. 
Matimba: And some ballyhoo. I feel like I've gone through all my questions. 
Will: Sure. 
Matimba. This is it. 
Will: Okay. 
Matimba: Thank you so much. 
Will: It's my pleasure. 
Matimba: It's been great having you. You sure you don't want to spit a couple of bars to see us out? 
Will: You'd have to lay a beat, and I think we're both too old for that. 
Matimba: Yeah, we'll let it go. 
Will: You'll have to catch me elsewhere, in the more casual moment. 
Matimba: Thank you so much, Will. 
Will: Okay. My pleasure. 
Matimba: Ok let’s get these thanks in. We couldn’t have made this podcast without Will Massa, thanks to the musical talents of Rory Dempsey, the BFI NET.WORK team and producer Marie. We want to know what you think of the podcasts, so Tweet us @bfinetwork. Bye for now.
Thank you to producer Marie, the BFI NET.WORK team, and thank you's not tuning in, it’s not the '80s, you’re not live.