Film Festivals Are A Brutal Game. Should You Play?

Film Festivals Are A Brutal Game. Should You Play?

This is the final entry in a four-part series about how I (Karl Stelter) wrote, crowdfunded, directed, and premiered my first professional short film, The Long Goodbye.

In the first entry, I shared how I came to be in LA, and 6 years later finally start writing something that mattered to me.

In the second, I shared why “finding your voice” is bullshit, and what I learned from crowdfunding $11,000.

In the third, I shared exactly how I put together a team of talented filmmakers, how we prepared, and what I wish I did differently.

In this final entry, I’ll share why I chose to rent a theater in LA to premiere my 23 minute short film, all by itself... and how I got over 100 people to buy tickets.

Heart and Soul

I poured my heart and soul into creating The Long Goodbye—along with $30,000 and 3 years of my life—and I’ve been rejected from every single festival to date.

Even a “safety school” festival rejected my film - a festival that I would have actually rejected as a premiere!

But is it a bad film? You tell me.

But I can say one thing with certainty: it didn’t play by festival rules.

Sooo... What Are The Rules?

They’re exactly what everyone tells you they are:

  1. Keep it short. 8-10 minutes, possibly shorter, is the ideal length.

  2. Tailor your story to hit a social zeitgeist.

  3. Know someone.

I consciously decided to say ‘fuck that’ to all of these rules, because I had a story of a certain length that I felt passionate about telling.

And the feedback I’ve gotten is a resounding ‘fuck that’ right back at me. (Well, technically it was a series of polite emails humble-bragging about an overwhelming number of submissions.)

Shouldn’t be that surprised really. But it still stings.

But... is my short film a failure?

What You Should Want vs Actually Need

The old-school way of thinking would be: create a great short → it goes to festivals → people gush over it (and you) → awards and laurels abound → you’re off to make a feature!

Sounds reasonable.

I was tired of hitting the ‘pause’ button on my career as a director because of what film festivals ‘might’ do for me.

And it also sounds pretty nice to have people I don’t know say, “Gee Karl, your film is awfully good.” But what do you actually need?

Let’s distill the process: create a great short → you’re off to make a feature!

Notice - you don’t actually need the festival circuit to be a success. What you need is something to show people something that generates the question “what’s next?” and then the real trick:

Have something on deck!

Case in Point: Film Festivals Failed ‘Ben’

I was recently at a film conference led by a series of programmers, agents, etc talking about the purpose of a short film as a director’s calling card, and this one guy we’ll call Ben asks a 3-minute question I’ll do my best to sum up in a single run-on:

“So I got into over 150 festivals including Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, and I’ve seen friends at those same festivals make feature films from scripts they had ready, but I didn’t have anything at that time and now I don’t know what to do…”

Queue: biggest eye-roll you can imagine from everyone in the room.

The best part is, in his 3 minute preamble he actually answered his own question that he didn’t want to admit: when lightning struck - he didn’t have anything else ready.

His friends did. They made more stuff.

He hasn’t made more stuff in over 1.5 years. End of story.

Re-Assessing The Long Goodbye

I was still waiting to hear back from 19 mid-to-upper tier festivals, including Austin, LA Shorts, and Chicago—but I could read the writing on the wall: the film wasn’t going to fit into the festival circuit.

Which sucks. And every successive email I get that gently pats me on the head with “a record breaking number of submissions” infuriates me.

I did the research. Lined up festivals selects and cash. No dice.

I did the research. Lined up festivals selects and cash. No dice.

But I’ve always felt the worst thing you can do is make something that no one sees. And waiting literally YEARS for festivals was not something I had the patience for. I was tired of hitting the ‘pause’ button on my career as a director because of what film festivals ‘might’ do for me.

I was tired of letting other people control what happens to my film. That I crowdfunded. That I put my heart and soul into.

So as scary as it was to disqualify myself from the few ‘dream’ festivals left on my list—I decided they will not be the metric that defines me or my work.

Drawing from the audience and awareness I’d built crowdfunding, I decided to rent a theater in LA for one night, and use the entire 2-hour block to premiere my short film.

I was going to make money back by selling tickets to it.

And then I was going to post it online.

Self-Premiering at a Brick-and-Mortar Theater

But why the hell would anyone navigate LA traffic for a short film, let alone pay to see it?

That’s a great question. And my answer is the same one I pitched in the crowdfunding campaign: I’m going to give you an experience.

Over 100 people showed up to support me. And in the 9 years I’ve been in LA, it was the first time it felt like home.

So I rented a 140 person theater, and pulled out all the stops.

When people arrived, instead of doing a red carpet (snore) I had my wife Rachel take old-school black and white polaroids of people that they could pick up after the film.

And while people were watching the film, I had two PAs put “The Long Goodbye” branded stickers on the back of them.

When people entered the theater, we handed out unbranded, pre-stamped postcards that had a frame grab of Arizona landscape from a pivotal scene - and space to write a letter to a loved one.

When the film ended, I’d ask everyone to take a moment of silence and write to someone they loved, just to say hi and let them know they were thinking of them.

The marketer in me knew that when they received the postcard, they’d catch up and ask where that was from - and they’d talk about The Long Goodbye.

Postcards 2.jpg

But the moment I hadn’t planned for, was how I’d introduce the film. I remember escaping to the bathroom minutes before it was about to start, searching my heart for what to say. As a close friend of mine said, “Just speak the truth - people smell bullshit a mile away at these things.”

So I settled on what to say, and marched towards the front of the theater - heart pounding, where I turned around to see over 100 people looking back at me, patiently waiting for the film to start.

Over 100 people showed up to support me. And in the 9 years I’ve been in LA, it was the first time it felt like home.

And I simply told them my truth: films are meant to be shared, and I’m excited to share this with you.

Wrapping Up: Festival vs Self-Premiere Costs

It feels like some dirty secret to talk about money as a filmmaker. Maybe it’s because I’m not a producer, or because no one else seems to talk about it.

But I want to be as transparent as possible with you.

I spent about $2,700 on the LA premiere, including theater rental, DCP cost, posters, polaroids + film, postcards and stamps. I made back about $1,000 - netting a $1,700 loss.

That’s no joke. But it’s about what I expected.

And more importantly - people remember the premiere. They remember the film, they remember feeling they left with, and they’re excited to see what’s next.

In my opinion, that’s money well spent.

On the other hand: I spent $1,099 on film festivals - which has only reminded me how much I hate festivals.

As scary as it was to disqualify myself from the few ‘dream’ festivals left on my list—I decided they will not be the metric that defines me or my work.

Tail Lights: Make Your Film

Knowing what you want from your short film is seriously as important as making one. Want to get into festivals? Make a festival film. Want to hone your craft? Do something experimental. Pitch a feature? Go for it.

For me - I wanted to make a story I felt deeply about, and that represents me as a director.

That’s literally it.

And so many good things have happened that have absolutely nothing to do with festivals:

  • I’ve forged relationships with people I would never otherwise gotten to meet

  • I’ve leveled up my filmmaking abilities in EVERY field

  • I learned how to collaborate with amazing people in every department

  • Friends and industry contacts now recognize me for The Long Goodbye - instead of ‘Karl the video guy’.

But most of all: I made something I’m proud of.

So when you make your film: own it. Own everything about it. Make it the best weird 27 minute horror-thriller-western you can - because if you’re not making films that are true to you, who will?

If you enjoyed this article, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

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