This guide is for young filmmakers, who are wearing different hats on their debut shorts or financing their project from their own pockets - especially those on no-budget or a micro-budget. I’m writing this guide based on my experience: I’ve directed two short documentaries, a short film and a season of a web-series - the last of which currently has a successful marketing plan and campaign. This is, therefore, based on failures as well as successes. I hope I can provide as much help as possible!
Behind the scenes from documentary Sounds in the Rift (2019)
1. Is your film worthy of a marketing campaign?
Before you start whatever it is you’re going to do with your short film, hopefully not made yet, you must know whether it’s worth a marketing campaign in the first place. Be honest with yourself too - there’s no point sinking money into a product which may act as more of a training ground for your skills rather than a culmination of them.
Is your film a cool 10-15 mins? Is it a genre piece with a clear audience? Is there a precise and relevant message in your film? Is the sound good? (Trust me, that question may be the most important one). What’s the story? Is it unique?
Marketing your film is going to cost money. Moreover, it’s going to cost time. An average marketing campaign may be 6-12 months, depending on the size of the project. Take that into account as early as you possibly can. If you direct a film over 6 months, add another 6 months to promote it, etc.
If there’s no rush for this one to be the one, if you have better ideas, better scripts, better concepts in your drawer - wait for those before starting a push for recognition or accolades. There’s nothing wrong with releasing your film online and getting feedback - who knows what opportunities could come your way for free? Because once you go all in on one film, don’t expect to be able to jump straight into the next after it’s done. A perfect example of this on the grand scale is Parasite’s award-winning campaign, which lasted 13 months. Bong Joon-Ho was promoting one film for over a year. Similarly, the Call Me By Your Name campaign lasted 13 months. These are extremes, but they can become very real if your film makes it past the first few goal posts. Visions of a Vivid Life, my web-series, is currently set for an international web festival in January 2021, which will mark 12 months since we shot the series.
No film is a sure thing either. I made a music documentary with an established artist that ended up with zero marketing, a botched release and rejections from all the free festivals I did bother to submit to. While it did end up being screened a couple of times, it was essentially a failure - and I was totally expecting it to be seen by a horde of fans when I was working on it for almost three years. Online releases and simple promotion on social media is a totally viable option for any upcoming filmmaker.
2. When should you start your marketing plan?
Start planning your campaign whilst you’re prepping your film. Your film’s production timeline and release date will heavily affect your marketing campaign. It may determine if you can do one at all. When I got round to planning Visions of a Vivid Life, the production timeline perfectly synced with the festival calendar when it came to web-series, which was, admittedly, the deciding factor in choosing to go forward with it. However, it wouldn’t affect my process as a filmmaker; so, don’t rush to submission dates if you don’t have to. A good idea is to look at other distribution outlets that will pick up your project without tying you down to a contract - so no, not Netflix and Amazon, but small websites, collectives etc. that will review your film and/or post your film to their YouTube. MYM (Million Youth Media) and Short of the Week are great examples of Youtube channels that debut short form work to a mass audience.
3. Knowing your film calendar and understanding festival tiers
Get to know the film calendar. Generally it starts with SXSW, which opens the year in January, then comes Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, Berlin, Venice, London and so on throughout the year, concluding with the Academy Awards 12/13 months after. But this is the triple A calendar, dubbed ‘A-tier festivals’. You are not aiming for those, but you do need to know the calendar because it still affects the festivals you will be applying for; you are aiming, firstly, for C-tier and possibly B-tier festivals. Get on FilmFreeway, start planning which ones would provide the right reception for a film like yours, and form the submission dates and event dates into a calendar. This is your release calendar/schedule.
Ingénue (2019) Q&A at arts festival, Syn Festival Edinburgh 2019
C-tier festivals tend to be monthly or bi-monthly, they’re good for either grabbing laurels, screenings and maybe an award, which you have more chance of winning due to their short time-frame. All this creates and builds hype around your film, giving it momentum, which is the number one aspect of marketing your film. Momentum is what gives your film ‘legs’. Legs to survive a 6-month run, a 12 month run, however much it ends up being. The best thing about these festivals is the quick turn-around; you can find out in under 4 weeks whether your submission was worth it. It'll let other festivals know your film is ‘favourable’ - maybe favourable enough to get it noticed for B tier festivals.
B-Tier festivals are regional festivals, international festivals or festivals you’ve heard of but aren’t widely publicised. These require a bit of work to get into and you need C-tier exposure, hopefully previous accolades and some good marketing work to get into them. These festivals tend to be BAFTA and Academy Award qualifying festivals, so the big boy short films will be competing alongside you. If your campaign gets this far and you get selected, that’s a pretty successful campaign and you can pat yourself on the back. Now, you’ll be in the room with more industry folks and people who will be really taking notice of your work. This is how you know you’ve made something with legs; by now, you’ve probably passed the 6 month mark and are wondering just how far your film might go. It requires 3 B-festival selections to qualify for an A-tier festival submission. That’s a submission, not a selection.
(Insert location) Film Festivals are your regional film festivals from Sunderland to Chicago. They are seen by those programming the tentpole festivals like Sundance and Slamdance - this is where they find new talent, so go for your local! Here are a few B-tier festivals to take note of in the UK (non-location based):
Underwire Film Festival, Aesthetica Film Festival, Vimeo Staff Picks, Short of the Week, London Shorts Festival, SOUL Fest, BFI Future Film Festival, London Short Series Festival (web-series), Pilot Light TV Festival (web-series), UK Offline Web Fest (web-series), Independent Shorts Awards, Lift-Off sessions (is free and sometimes works poorly, but for the right project can produce wonders in the annual competition).
4. Staggering your goals and setting a budget
With tiers and calendars it’s important to set goals for your film and they must be time-based too. For example you want to be applying for C-festivals before B-festivals, you want to spend £10 here and there before you spend £50 on a submission when you’ve got nothing to back yourself. Judges want to be able to type your film into Google and see it exists, who you are, how you made it, how much you made it with.
Set realistic goals and with each goal you achieve, you can push onto the next stage. Think of it as qualifying: B-festivals can sometimes require qualifications; for example, International Online Web Fest required 2 regional selections or a Play-Off win to be eligible for submission. Set an overall budget for the festivals you’re interested in. Then use a smaller portion of that budget to submit to a handful of cheap monthly/bi-monthly festivals to get your campaign going. If you get free opportunities, great, go for those too. Evaluate your film’s success and see what’s next on the calendar - B-tier festivals? Over how long a period? When do these festivals actually happen? Some can have 6 months between submissions and the event. Check all this info before you make your film so you can add it to your release calendar and make sure you’re okay with it.
All of this depends on your goal. Do you want distribution? Do you want a wider audience? Do you want to get your name out there for the next project? It’s important to decide this in your plan so you know what’s a failure and what’s not. Awards come with the long-haul and a lot of over-achievement - you can't plan for those, but you can set yourself up to be a contender.
5. How to promote for awards festivals and the long haul
The how-to part of the guide now - how do you actually become a contender after you’ve been selected for awards?
Create a relationship between your film and the festivals you're aiming for. Follow them on social media, create a rapport and make sure they know you exist. When you release a poster or a trailer, tag them so they see it and more importantly let them know you’re keen on their festival. You’re helping them market their business and hopefully if your film is good, they’ll want to help you.
Create a world outside the film: the reason why some films have Behind the Scenes and others don’t is because those that do have festival/awards campaigns. They offer a view into the hard work behind the product and give a story to you, the filmmaker and those behind the camera. Get yourself out there, contact your writer friends, your journalist friends, anyone you can to interact with you because SEO matters. When you search your film’s title, you want your name to be there, with interviews, reviews, clips, BTS and anything else.
Behind the scenes on web-series, Visions of a Vivid Life (2020)
Getting yourself out there refers to social interaction too - get connected with more filmmakers online, your peers or people you look up to. Make yourself and your project as visible as possible by making a social media account for your film and be active on both that and your personal. Many may not watch it yet, but at least they associate your face and your name with the film - it’s all about presence. As festivals have 100s to 1000s of submissions, so watching your film once isn’t always substantial - it’s easy for them to forget when they have to go through so many. Keep your film on their mind. If you want to be considered for screenwriting awards, talk about your screenplay, your writing process, post a couple pages of the script, let people see the work. This is what films do to be considered for the Oscars or Emmys, which is why you can find award-winning scripts online for free. You can do it too.
BTS: It’s standard to have a stills photographer on set, but if you can get someone proficient at video, gather as much B-roll as possible. If you have enough time and resources, get interviews from major cast and crew. Use all this and make a brief 3 -5 min featurette that goes behind the camera. This helps add dimension to the aforementioned ‘world-building’. Online, people can see you ‘at work’ as it were and the physicality of the decision-making process, which can’t be conveyed through interviews. It gives us a look at the mood of the set and honestly, any filmmakers in the game will be able to tell what kind of director you are - and that’s a good thing. A featurette markets both the film and yourself as an individual.
For Your Consideration e-mails: you can do these for selections or awards but this is basically a cover letter to your submission. E-mail the festival with some info about your film and who you are. Please consider this for selection - it’s good to do this if you have a production company the film is under, or even as a young director, they’ll understand the context behind the film. If you’re selected you can do FYC e-mails for awards too, ie. For Your Consideration ‘Best Young Actor - so and so’s name’. It’s a nudge, a reminder to say, hey, this is who we are, remember this thing you watched and liked? You should focus on this person. Make sure you have a reason for these though. Why should they consider? What’s special about this aspect of the film or your film in general? You don’t want to come off as an annoying award-hungry filmmaker. You want to let them know you appreciate both their work as festival programmers and the work in the film itself.
Marketing poster from web-series Visions of a Vivid Life (2020)
Finally, this is my lasting message. Do NOT judge your film based on numbers - whether it’s views, likes or retweets. In my experience, the amount of views has never related to the quality of my film or its success. While, yes, amassing views is good for exposure, it doesn’t necessarily mean your film will be a festival darling or a producer will headhunt you to direct a new project. It’s getting the right people to watch your film that matters.
I’ve been lucky, despite almost zero time for marketing my previous work, that the right people have seen it and it affected them enough to reach out to me, offer help on my next project, introduce me to others in the industry or to produce my next film. And at the end of the day, that’s everyone’s goal: to make another film. For now, that’s it. By no means is all of this easy to do, but I hope reading this was able to give you some insight into what the process is like. Truly, all this work is the job of the producer - so if you can find a good producer or a friend who wants to support your filmmaking career, this could be their job. However, if you’re producing your own work, by all means drown in it all. Good luck!