The culmination of 16 years of festival experience, Festival Formula is a powerful tool for independent filmmakers who wish to navigate the confusion of film festival submissions in the most logical and effective way. Katie McCullough who founded the service appears on our pages today to talk us through the benefits of working with Festival Formula, some of their do’s and don’ts for those embarking on the festival circuit, and the landscape for filmmakers and the industry post-Covid.

What do you think the biggest benefit of Festival Formula is to filmmakers?

Knowledge and time, and definitely patience. The festival circuit is a sprawling beast that has lumps and bumps of complexities all over the shop, and it’s fluxing, and increasing all the time. There’s also no set way that all festivals do things and I know that filmmakers find that frustrating, we do too. But there’s got to be an understanding that much like every film, every festival is different.

What are some of your key ‘do’s and don’ts’ that you use to advise filmmakers?

Do have a budget, doesn’t matter how much or little it is, just have one to start with. It makes me wince how much some filmmakers spend on submissions without any focus, it’s rare that we ask for more than £900 for a year’s worth of submissions for a short. On average we’re working to allocate a budget of £700-800 (less if it’s an animation due to those festivals being free or cheap, same goes for Student productions). It’s going to vary from film to film, and assets within them too, but that’s for approx 40+ festivals overall for a year’s worth of deadlines. Of course the more budget there is the more festivals you can submit to, but we’re about making sure the festivals submitted to are legitimate and actually translate to something for the film and filmmaker. Quality over quantity, vigilance over impatience.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the circuit is fixed and you have to ‘know someone’ to get selected. It’s complete bollocks. If no selections for your film are happening then it will be down to a few other factors; you’re submitting too high, or your film isn’t strong enough to be stepping on to the competitive circuit to start with. We’ve had screenings at Venice, Tribeca, Edinburgh, BFI London, Clermont Ferrand and so many more – that’s not because we slid a brown paper bag across the table, it was because the film was good and we submitted there like every filmmaker does. It’s down to the merit of your film and where you’re submitting. If someone tells you that you need to write an elaborate cover note, ring the festival to pitch the film, and know someone then they’re chatting shiny unicorn shit (and I hope they’re not charging you for that advice).

Do manage your expectations, and I cannot reiterate this enough. Ask yourself, “Why am I submitting to Really Big Festival? Is it because I feel I have to or because I honestly think my film suits their programming tastes?” I can tell you 9 times out of 10 filmmakers are submitting somewhere because it’s an industry festival or because they want to screen there, this is different from your film suiting there. You can save a lot of money by being more realistic, but you can also save yourself a whole heap of rejection on top of what is already a very rejection-filled circuit journey.

Don’t be a dick. If a festival has turned your film down, you sending them a shitty email is not going to change their mind, nor is slagging them off on social media. This seems logical but you’d be surprised. There are a plethora of reasons why a film may be turned down, lack of space in the programme, another film with a similar story that had different execution, high chance that your film scored high but not as high as others, etc. And sometimes, if you’re film isn’t strong, it can be because they didn’t like it. But because this part of the process is faceless you won’t hear the reasons why, and it’s mainly because people can be like the aforementioned dicks. The best advice I can give you if you are rejected is to look at the programme that was selected, you won’t like everything, even we shake our heads at some selections, but the programmer will know their audience a whole lot more than you will. Plus it makes those selections even sweeter.

How do you think the festival landscape is going to shift post-covid?

I’ve been saying this since the first few festivals were forced to cancel, and I stand by it. This is going to sort the wheat from the chafe. It’s going to show those festivals that are doing it for the right reasons (i.e. for the filmmakers, industry, etc.) and carve out those who weathered the storm no matter the circumstances. Now I want to reiterate that in the early days when festivals were being cancelled there was no wiggle room, but the festivals that happened post main-thrust of lockdown throughout the world began to adjust and either pivot to being online, or postpone. And then as we were in the midst of everything the choices merged into pivoting online or hybrid.

There have been some great responses from festivals during these turbulent times, and there has been some downright atrocious behaviour too. Sometimes it’s been down to the size of the team behind a festival, festival directors being overwhelmed with the task at hand, mostly it’s been down to not considering everyone in the process. Going forward festivals will be defined by their actions during 2020, the camaraderie between festivals has been strengthened and the communication between filmmaker and festivals has increased too which is what we’re always aiming for. What I will say is that there has been a distinct divide between territories with regards to their enthusiasm during this time; some focused on continuing their role of nurturing talent no matter what, and others were too proud to make sacrifices and withdrew. This can also be said of the perspective of the filmmakers falling into two camps; those holding out waiting for physical festivals to happen again, and those who carried on and have still racked up the selections and not stood still.

It’s going to show those festivals that are doing it for the right reasons and carve out those who weathered the storm no matter the circumstances.

And how do you think it’s affecting those current submissions?

Interestingly, it’s varying depending on the level of festival from our discussions across the field. For some it’s been slow, others it’s increased alarmingly so. I do think this is to do with the timeline of how festivals have responded and when they take place, including their submission deadlines. As festivals began to pivot online it’s meant that filmmakers could see what that actually looks like, and after seeing that it was succeeding in some areas and there were accolades to still garner, submissions have begun to increase again.

Do you think it’ll have a knock-on effect with festivals operating similarly to sites like ourselves?

We did some research for case studies into festivals in different territories who had made the decision to do their latest edition online which turned up some interesting responses. One of the questions asked was, “Will you consider an online element for your festival going forward?”. The question wasn’t about reverting to purely online, but adding something in the future and everyone who took part said yes. It’s not an exhaustive piece of research because since then more festivals have taken place, but it shows that there is a fluidity between industry professionals and online access. Taking the idea of a video library and being able to reach a wider audience is something that most festivals have been exploring (and some festivals already have in existence to begin with). Let’s put it another way, the calendar is riddled with so many festivals that overlap so now there’s the potential to be more places at once without the cost, carbon footprint, or calendar restrictions.

Does Festival Formula assist clients with strategies for releasing their work with internet-based curators? What in your view should filmmakers consider when deciding which sites to launch online with?

Our main focus is on the festival circuit at large, and because there is still an air of needing exclusivity for the majority of festivals, the main bulk of our clientele have their films offline. So, the goal is to garner as much kudos on the circuit for the film and filmmaker, so that when they do get to a position of releasing online they have built-in accolades to catch people’s eyes.

Allowing a creative to discuss their work as well as having the curator’s perspective is key.

We always advise our clients to really pick wisely where they go to for their online release because they want to get exposure for the film, but they also want to be treated respectfully as the creator too. And it’s also dependent on the type of film you have, much like there are festivals with different tastes, the same goes for those that premiere shorts online. We prefer websites like Directors Notes who offer a platform for the voice of the filmmaker to rise up from the premiere. There are plenty of sites that filmmakers aspire to get on to but personally I find them focused solely on the content with no time given to the filmmaker – allowing a creative to discuss their work as well as having the curator’s perspective is key. Filmmakers should always be thinking of, “what can this do for me and my work” rather than, “where can I get the most views”. Sometimes the correlation between the two isn’t always the deciding factor. We would rather a filmmaker get noticed by other creatives, get job offers, garner respect in the industry and so on than exclaiming, “look everyone, I amassed thousands of views!” Numbers are nice, but how do you translate that?

How has lockdown shifted your practice, we’ve seen that Festival Formula has been doing regular Zoom sessions?

We’ve been very lucky in that we are a small company whose team all work from home anyway, so for us there’s been minimal disruption. We’ve also seen a massive increase since lockdown began of new clients signing up so we really are fortunate as we know that not everyone has had the same experience.

As we’re very active members of the Film Festival Alliance and Short Film Conference, and deal with hundreds of festivals, it meant that we could keep our ear to the ground and scope out what festivals were doing in response to Covid-19. In turn, by keeping ourselves up-to-date we could inform our clients which is in our natural mindset anyway. We pride ourselves on being very open with communication with our slate so whilst we did hold a few Zoom catch up calls with our clients en masse, we’ve also been having individual Zoom calls, phone calls and plenty of emails answering everyone’s questions. It’s tough when you’re straddling multiple time zones and everyone’s availability, but there’s something exciting about having clients from all over the world in one Zoom call to discuss the landscape and quell any concerns.

What does the immediate future look like for yourself and Festival Formula?

More of the same, and then some. The whole team has been steadily working throughout so you’re not going to see any photos of us taking it easy and having a quiet lockdown period. I’m going to be very frank here, 2020 was a year that we had planned a lot of new connections for the company and we were heading up a notch in terms of business level. As a company that travels a lot the pandemic scuppered physical travel… but the silver lining is that all of those festivals that we were going to visit for the first time and collaborate with are going ahead online so we still have that opportunity to show our support and grow.

If anyone is signed up to our newsletter you would have heard me banging on about silver linings throughout all of this. One of those for us as a company is that we’ve still grown existing relationships and garnered new ones. I’ve inadvertently become a go-to moderator for online panels and Q&As and also started up the Filmmaker Lounge in conjunction with the Film Festival Alliance during the pandemic. It’s common knowledge that I never stop working, and I think in a fluxing space where we are right now I don’t want to stop thinking about filmmakers and festivals because they need guidance right now, and the synergy between that relationship is something that won’t ever go away.

Festival Formula are paving the way for independent filmmakers in the complicated jungle of film festivals, for more information on how they can aid your festival run, head here.

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