"We aren't in the business of treating films like numbers on a balance sheet."
As a filmmaker for most of my life, I recognise that the film festival circuit is absolutely crucial in every way for a filmmaker to get his or her film seen and judged, and to also get recognised as a filmmaking talent and a future hot property of the film world. Though there are a lot of myths surrounding film festivals, especially the top-tier ones, I think there’s a truth to the magic of cinema combined with an objectively agreed notion of quality. However, it still takes a detailed submissions process and a panel of judges to try and define what makes a great film get swept up by the worldwide circuit. Every film festival has its own personality, and there is no denying that the global film festival circuit is still the best way to catch the new wave of talent coming through.
As MD of Festival Formula, we’ve had a fantastic year and I’m incredibly proud of Katie, our Founder, and the whole team for working so hard. Katie and I met after the production of SexLife and I hired Festival Formula for a submissions package. Needless to say, it all went extremely well with SexLife to be the only UK short film selected by Tribeca that year. This is one of my proudest achievements to date, and when I remember what it felt like to watch SexLife on the big screen at Tribeca, it was like winning an Oscar.
When Frankie introduced me to Skepta, a Grime artist and an entrepreneurial fellow traveller in the creative arts, I was reminded that tenacity, resilience and ambition are essential qualities needed to succeed in our respective industries. As a filmmaker who has climbed the ranks and toured the festival circuit, I feel that it is my duty to hold the door to success open for younger aspiring filmmakers when I can. Giving opportunities to young people eager to break into the film industry has many benefits for me as a mentor; new perspectives, curiosity, enthusiasm and the inbuilt ability to grasp upcoming trends before they happen. I'd argue that teaching seasoned MDs about the Grime scene is one of the more underrated perks, but I digress.
I was very impressed by Katie’s talent and chose Festival Formula again to look after the next film Surgery. Once again, safe to say, it was a fantastic experience. I accepted Katie’s invitation to run Festival Formula as MD and I thought at the time, well, if I’m going to do it I’d better start before my son Dominic is born - and so we went full steam ahead, and the partnership grew to a fantastic company. The team has grown to Natalia, Kat, Frankie, Chris and Ivan and there is still room to grow even further.
As well as commenting on the growth of the company, I wanted to pause for thought and write a few end of year reflections for anyone reading this. Writing this end of year piece also gave me a chance to crunch some data with the team for our Insight readers, filmmakers, fans of our work and potential clients.
There were 12,166 films submitted to Sundance and only 184 were accepted. That’s just 1.5% of all submitted films that made the cut! That gives you an idea of just how hard it is to navigate the film festival circuit at that level. With festival fees adding up, especially across the top tier festivals - Tribeca, Sundance, Cannes and South by Southwest - it’s tremendously important to make sure a film is placed with the correct festival. That’s a skill in itself, and the reason why Katie founded the company. There are thousands of film festivals out there, and it’s worth noting that there are some we wouldn’t go near even if you had a Dirty Harry Magnum hand cannon at our heads. I opened my talk at Exit 6 Film Festival in Basingstoke earlier this year with the Sundance statistic above and gave the audience a crash course on the work that Festival Formula does. So much time, money and passion, as it should be, is put into film production and making the best film you can. But it does seem a little strange that, having poured the entire team’s ‘heart and soul’ into the making of a film, the best strategy and submissions package is, in some cases, treated as a minor afterthought. That’s like a chef who creates an incredible meal for only a handful of random people to eat a few tiny mouthfuls.
I suppose it comes down to who to trust. We often feel like babysitters looking after another person’s child, and it’s a great honour for us to look after the films - particularly when the handover is straight after post-production is completed and the film is in its freshest state. At Festival Formula, we have a rule that anyone having a meeting with us will be sitting with a team who has seen their film and has taken time to become familiar with it. We aren’t in the business of treating films like numbers on a balance sheet and we would hope that anyone who has used our services would testify to the extra mile we go to, from the moment we all first sit down together in that initial meeting. We don’t accept everything we’re sent. If we don’t feel there is a fit, and this can be frustrating at times, we will say as we would much rather you save your money.
The magic of cinema is personified by those first early viewings of Reservoir Dogs or El Mariachi, to name two favourite examples. Imagine sitting in Sundance or Cannes and seeing these films for the first time. Apparently the very first time Reservoir Dogs was shown, the projectionist hadn’t put the correct lens on the projector and it was something of a disaster. It was reported that the audience was booing and a number of them just walked out. But thankfully, positive reviews spread like wildfire after the next screening that this was actually something quite special. Now, 24 years on from Tarantino’s first foray and with the power of social media, when we come across a film which we can help highlight for the fans of the circuit, we hope it is enjoyed by the hundreds of thousands who watch them, those early adopters - even before it is hopefully seen by audiences in the millions outside of the circuit itself.
To give some context, I looked at three films to see how they did on the Festival Circuit in the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Sex Lies and Videotape (1989) received 19 wins and 15 nominations; Reservoir Dogs (1992) had 9 wins and 15 nominations, and Memento (2000) received 54 wins and 57 nominations. This also highlights the rapid rise in film festivals and award shows, as the demand to catch classic films early quickly increased. The circuit in each case was the springboard for those filmmakers and started them on their journey to a very healthy career.
We did some more number-crunching and we worked out that a filmmaker, whether producer or director, will spend a minimum of £3,000 worth of their time on their film festival. This covers time spent researching, checking on their film online, using the submissions platforms, doing all of the time-consuming admin, social media, answering emails, making sure no deadlines are missed, mailing DCPs, contacting festivals in the event of a win and to organise travel or a stay at the hotel provided, and checking on that fee-waiver. We have a team of 5 specialists who collectively charge half this, and who pride themselves on never missing a deadline.