How to Attend a Film Festival with Purpose

Originally published on Wipster.io here. (As Jen Metcalfe.)

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Film festivals are a rollicking cinematic good time, and regardless of your filmmaking specialty, they’re also brimming with opportunities to learn, be inspired and network.

To get the most out of them you need to do a little preparation. (Remember the 5 Ps: “prior preparation prevents poor performance.”) Tailor your film festival experience to get the most out of it for your professional development and inspiration.

Step One: Consult the Schedule

For me, the fun part of a festival is sitting down beforehand with my highlighters and calendar, feverishly rifling through the festival booklet and drawing up an expansive colour-coordinated schedule of what I’m going to see, when I’m going to see it, and who I could potentially meet at these screenings. It’s a Tetris organizational delight, and it’s the key to maximizing your film festival experience.

These films have travelled a long way to see you: don’t miss out on seeing them. To avoid disappointment, channel your inner Leslie Knope and book your tickets well in advance.

When selecting your films, think about the people you want to meet at the screenings as well. Keep an eye as to which filmmakers are travelling with their creations, and keep your other cunning eye out on who else you think will be at their sessions. If you’re a documentary maker, a Werner Herzog screening could lead you not only shake the hand of a pioneer, but also meet the cameraman for your next project.

Meticulous organization doesn’t really embody the festival image of attendees breezily strolling into an event and partying, which I think is quite appropriate as it reflects how much hidden effort goes into making a film in the first place.

Step Two: Say Hi

Say ‘hi’ to those you are in line with or sitting next to. You never know whom you could meet, and you’ll find that you’ll end up developing your own mini community of collaborators and friends. Producers, directors, actors, designers and editors all attend film festivals, and the opportunity to network with these people is half the reason people attend.

Before the festival, develop a couple of pitches so you’re not thrown by the classic “so, what do you do?” question. Once the festival is over, make sure to follow up with everyone you met. This is crucial: it’s one thing to have a scintillating conversation at the event, but entirely another to grow that into a relationship. To jog your memory for staying in touch, write down a couple of points about each person (either on their business card or on your phone). If they’re a fan of Edgar Wright’s crazy camera angles, or were wearing a spectacular plaid jacket, drop this into your follow-up conversation with them when you invite them to coffee.

Step Three: Share the Love

Film festivals are often the only place for independent films to shine. If you loved a film, make sure to shout about it (just not during the session: don’t be that annoying attendee who gets pulled out by the organizers). Tweet about it and tell people you meet. Often, rave reviews and positive word of mouth is the only way for an independent film to get traction and hit a DVD release so this is a fantastic way to share your thoughts and opinions with the filmmaking community.

(And who knows: helping with reviews and sharing the love may pay dividends when you’ve made your masterpiece!)

And don’t forget to tell the filmmakers themselves. Creators will often be at the festival, eagerly awaiting audience reactions. Don’t be afraid to laugh and clap during a screening. (When appropriate: don’t be that annoying attendee with the awkward reactions.) If you see a beret-clad person nervously standing to the side of the aisles after a session, or if you recognise their face from your pre-festival research, be sure to share quick and respectful thanks with them.

Step Four: Pick Those Brains

Question and Answer panels are another huge component of a film festival. As an attendee, use the opportunity to ask intelligent questions. Make sure to research the filmmakers: watch their previous work and think about what you’d like to salute them for.

If you’re a filmmaker, use the opportunity to connect with your audience. Establish rapport with your fans so that they will support your release. At the 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival, I helped Vladislav, one of the vampiric subjects of ‘What We Do in the Shadows” (from established documentarians Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement) Skype in from his coffin to talk about his experience making the documentary: how filming could only take place at night, the process of giving every crew member a crucifix for filming, and, sadly, the devastating loss of one of our cameraman during a full moon and encounter with some pesky werewolves.

Jemaine Clement talks with audience members while 'Viago' (Taika Waititi) Skypes in at a similar panel event.

Jemaine Clement talks with audience members while ‘Viago’ (Taika Waititi) Skypes in at a similar panel event.

Doing such a fun and unusual panel meant that the audience really connected with the film. A little creativity in how you present yourself will help establish a loyal fan base to spread the word about your creation.

Step Five: Say Thanks

As well as thanking filmmakers or panel members for their work and time, please also make sure to thank your festival organizers. They’re often slightly overwhelmed volunteers, just helping out for the love of the art form. I’m sure they’ve had their share of dealing with that raucous attendee shouting during the session, who also spilled their chocolate sundae all over their seat. (Don’t be that attendee.)

Of course, if you’re still working on getting your foot in the door, being one of these volunteers is a great way to make connections.

Step Six: Be Creatively Renewed

Make sure you set some time aside for pure play and enjoyment. Go to a couple of sessions just to watch. These films are an opportunity to be reminded of why you love movies, and why you wanted to venture into the crazy filmmaking world to begin with.

Film festivals are a great opportunity to watch great films, but don’t forget the other major reason for attending: networking and developing a community of your own. Follow our advice above, and keep an eye out for your next festival. Then bring out your highlighters and Tetris together your schedule – let the fun begin!

I’d love to hear what you’re looking forward to watching in the comments below, or tweet us @wipsters.

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