How to Prepare and Promote Your Film for Festivals

May 12, 2017
Tips and Techniques
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You’ve just gone through the gauntlet, you’re like, ‘Dude, I’m broke and now I gotta promote it?’ But you’ve gotta find a way. What’s the point of making a movie if nobody's going to watch it?

You’ve made your masterpiece. It’s staring at you as a successful Vimeo, Withoutabox, or FilmFreeway upload. Now it’s submission time!

Or is it? What do you need to promote your film on the festival circuit? When do you need it? Should you even submit your film before you have a promotion plan in place?

These can be difficult questions to ask because the foundational charm of film festivals is the idea that, big or small, a film’s success will be determined by its merit. While that might be true (sometimes) it’s also true that good promotion is key to getting the most out of the festival experience. As filmmakers, we should never be empty-handed if a big moment for our movie arrives.

Why You Need Promo Materials

Sundance Film Festival

Michael Latt was a marketing consultant for Sundance, doing social media content production and marketing for films like Fruitvale Station, The Birth of a Nation, and other Sundance premieres. To Michael, thoughtful promotion is necessary because it means being ready for anything.

“For most of these films, pretty much all of them, you’re not gonna get a bigger platform than the Sundance Film Festival. That’s a really unique opportunity to reach such an international audience... Having behind-the-scenes photos, regular stills, and a poster is great, too... It’s important to really establish a little bit of an online presence for social media, and also just have those materials on hand. If your film gets a lot of buzz and people want to write articles about it, I think it’s good if you have complementary content.”

Steve Wallace programs for A Night of Horror Int’l Film Festival /Fantastic Planet in Sydney, Australia and MidWest WeirdFest in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. To Steve, it’s important to promote the things you have to show. However, he does offer one bit of cautionary advice.

“There is a conventional understanding that you can never engage your audience too soon. And it’s more or less correct. So start audience-building when you have something to show. But, be aware, you might not want to engage too early; because then it’s possible that things will look stagnant during periods of perceived inactivity. So with both of those in mind, I’d say a good time is maybe a year out?”

What Do You Need?

A publicist. Lance Larson, a veteran filmmaker who has lost count of how many festivals his films have been to (but he estimates between 400 and 500), puts it bluntly.

“Hire a publicist and blast it.”

April Lamb is a producer who has worked with Steve McQueen and Sebastian Silva, among others. Her latest feature, Hunter Gatherer, premiered at SXSW to strong reviews, but still faced a six month uphill battle before it got sold. Without a killer publicist, the film might not have made it out of the festival circuit.

“The only thing that really got us through that period was that we had great publicist. Adam Kersh is a god in my eyes. He knows everyone, he’s super calm, he loves movies, he’s at every single festival. I don’t think he sleeps. He has repped so many of our friends’ films and so many films that were bought at Sundance, so having him there to make sure that there’s this visibility with the film once we got in was beyond paramount.”


Having a presence at film festivals is a full time job. Filmmakers already have their hands full. Among all of the travel planning for the cast, crew, and investors, fundraising for those travel fees, and contacts with the festivals themselves, April had no opportunity to become a media correspondent in the meantime.

“If you can get any sort of write-up about how this movie is actually fantastic or you get a review… The only way you’re getting that is if someone else is helping you. It is an expense, but if you don’t have that built into your budget as an indie film, you’re crazy.”

Steve Wallace echoes the sentiment in from the festival perspective.

“Depending on the level of festival you get into, traditional PR is probably the most important. If it’s a tier 1 fest (Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, etc.), you’ll probably want a PR company handling press releases for you. You want to be in IndieWire, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, etc… As you go from the top tier fests, you’ll scale down your marketing efforts. You may do a press release on your own. Post to social media. Engage blogs that are within your genre. Create a story. Let’s say you got into a reputable fest. Releasing a trailer and offering that to an influential magazine or blog in your market is a good example. Then point fans to that article from your own website and social media page(s). Create engagement.”

Need help finding a publicist? April recommends using word-of-mouth. Who has a good reputation? Who has helped your peers with their films. While there are a lot of publicists available, there’s no concrete way of knowing who is actually well-connected and who isn’t. Using the experiences of people you trust is the surest way to find a publicist who will represent your film well.

For the filmmakers who can’t afford a publicist (yet, stay positive), you can still create your own press kits. Rob Leddy, Festival Director for the Coney Island Film Festival, breaks down the basics.

  • Print images
  • Trailer
  • Three line synopsis
  • Exact run time
  • Prior screenings
  • Any awards
  • Cast list
  • Crew list
  • Short bios.

He also offers a savvy, inexpensive solution for promoting your film at festivals.

“Postcards are always a hit and to maximize your audience, they should have the date, time and venue of your film. A generic postcard without that info doesn't promote your screening if attendees have to search for that info. If you've already ordered a bulk order of generic postcards for your film, slapping on a home-printed label with the previously described info can be a cost saving measure.”

“Sundance doesn’t care about your website, they just want to see a good film. And if they’re the first film festival to show it, then they get to tell the story about how they discovered it and that can be powerful.”

Creating the Perfect Online Presence

You need an online presence to help your audience find and identify you before and/or after they see your film. Michael Latt explains:

“Films trend every year. You want to make sure that if it’s trending, you can drive traffic to your channel so you’re actually acquiring those fans instead of them not knowing where to go… After they [distributors] pick up the film, they’ll start up social pages for it already, so if they already have a good presence, that just helps the distributor.”

Lance Larson agrees, making a point to have a website in place whenever he is about to enter a new project.

“I always build a website. I try to build it out with directors’ statements and anything else special about the movie in case people want to try and learn about it more. It’s always great to reach out to your audience and try to be accessible.”

However, there is an idea that, if you’re aiming for a big festival premiere, you might be better off with limited presence at first. It allows the film to be discovered in a fresh way. Afterwards, you want to be ready to promote the hell out of your movie. Before acceptance, though, you might want to be relatively quiet. Once momentum begins, then you’ll be ready to capitalize. Lance Larson explains:

“It might be a good idea for your first festival to go in stealth. Then after that, get your publicist and just blow it out.” Lance continues. “Sundance doesn’t care about your website, they just want to see a good film. And if they’re the first film festival to show it, then they get to tell the story about how they discovered it and that can be powerful.”

Though this is going against the tendencies every millennial filmmaker has, building your social media presence after your first big break, may give you more wind beneath your sail. Plus, if your pre-festival social media is weak, going dark might be the best option you have. Steve Wallace notes:

“Once you’ve made your film and start submitting it to festivals, I’d say no social is better than weak social.”

‍Locarno International Film Festival

Why Go to All of the Trouble?

Momentum. The better prepared you are for success, the better run your film will have. The time and money you spend early could help you save money down the line. Lance Larson notes:

“You get into a few fests, you win a couple, and all of the sudden they’re inviting you without fees. Which is awesome! There are so many festivals, and they’re so expensive, and most filmmakers don’t have a lot of money because they’re throwing it all on their films. So, when it comes time to market it, you throw it on the circuit, you’ve just gone through the gauntlet, and you’re like, ‘dude, I’m broke and now I gotta promote it?’ But you’ve gotta find a way. What’s the point of making a movie if nobody's going to watch it?”

You’ve already worked your ass off to get your film to the festival stage, what’s a little extra effort to ensure the best experience possible? Package your movie with the right extras, and you’ll be ready for any success that comes your way.

Happy festivals, filmmakers.

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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