Thursday, September 13, 2012

Rona Edwards & Monika Skerbelis on “The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals”

What is your filmmaking background?

MONIKA: I started out as an assistant at Paramount Pictures, then moved over to 20th Century Fox as an assistant story editor promoted to story editor. Universal Pictures offered me a better deal to run their story department where I spent ten years and was promoted to a Vice President of Creative overseeing the Story Department.

At Universal, I developed a number of screenplays, including Black Dog starring the late Patrick Swayze. In addition to my duties at Universal, I scoured film festivals and screenwriting competitions in search for new filmmakers. After I left Universal I became involved with the Big Bear Lake International Film Festival, where I have been programming films for the past thirteen years. 

The last five years, I’ve worked with The American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival programming a slate of films. I also co-produced a feature length mockumentary, Quest for the Yeti, directed by Victoria Arch and directed a short film, Reel Footage: The Secret Lives of Shoes that screened at the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival. I was also associate producer on two movies, Killer Hair and Hostile Makeover, based on the Crimes of Fashion novels by Ellen Byerrum, for the Lifetime Movie Network.

With Rona Edwards I co-wrote two books, The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals and I Liked It, Didn’t Love It: Screenplay Development from the Inside Out. We also are the founders of ESE Film Workshops Online, where we teach 4 to 6 week online course like “Creating A Production Company,” and “Maneuvering Film Festivals.”  I am a member of the Producers Guild of American.
RONA: I began as an actress and a singer when a friend of mine asked me to do some location scouting for a Saturday morning live action film.  I had no idea what that was but they had the locations already and all I had to do was get the neighbors to sign release forms.  I had an ulterior motive; that I would hang out on the set and the producers would love me and hire me as an actor. They did love me but offered me a job as a development exec. 

I worked for Academy Award-nominee and Emmy Award winning Producer, Fern Field, Emmy Winner John Larroquette and Oscar Winner Michael Phillips as their VP of Creative Affairs before becoming an independent Producer.  I’ve produced 10 films and had countless others, in both motion pictures and television, in development at most of the studios, networks and other indie production companies. 

In addition to writing two books with Monika Skerbelis, I am also a journalist and have had columns and featured articles in newspapers including the Beachwood Voice, Los Feliz Ledger, Produced By magazine and the NeoWorld Review, a New York newspaper in which I wrote a column, Rona’s Reel Take, where I ranted and raved about the film industry. 

More recently, I executive produced two movies for Lifetime, Killer Hair and Hostile Makeover, based upon the Crimes of Fashion novels by Ellen Byerrum, produced the award-winning documentaries, Selling Sex in Heaven with Canadian filmmaker, Meredith Ralston which aired on the CBC and won the Beyond Borders award about sex tourism in the Philippines, and Unforgettable with filmmaker and screenwriter, Eric Williams (Mad City, Out of Sync) about his brother who has an autobiographical memory – he can remember every day of his life.  

And if that’s not enough, the past two years I’ve been dividing my time between Singapore and Los Angeles, where I teach Creative Producing & Development, Screenwriting and New Media at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts’ Singapore campus in addition to co-founding ESE FILM WORKSHOPS ONLINE with Monika Skerbelis – an online film school that teaches courses you didn’t learn in film school, including Maneuvering Film Festivals and Creating a Production Company.

 Why should filmmakers make film festivals part of their marketing plan for their movie?

MONIKA: Festivals provide great exposure for films and filmmakers. A film in one of the top tier festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto or even Telluride, SXSW and Tribeca may catch the eye of a buyer and gain a lot of press. Festivals help promote films via their social marketing and media outlets. They are also a great way to network with other filmmakers and get a sense of how audiences respond to their films.

RONA:  It’s also a great exit strategy from Film School or college.  It provides filmmakers the world over a platform to expose their films to new audience who wouldn’t otherwise get to see them.  There’s many reasons to submit and attend a film festival. Obviously first and foremost is to get your film accepted.  The next step would be to promote it – and promote yourself.  This means networking and forging new relationships with both industry pros that attend the festivals as well as filmmakers you might end up working with in the future.  We discuss many ways to do this in our book, which I think everyone will find very useful!

What's the biggest misconception you keep hearing from filmmakers about film festivals?

MONIKA: The premiere status of where a film is first screened can be a misconception for filmmakers who don’t understand the many types of premieres. For many festivals it’s on a case-by-case basis. They just don’t want to screen films that may have already premiered in their area or State. They want to show new films not just a rehash of films that screened at other top festivals.

On a separate festival misconception, locals living in the area of a film festival are not aware they can take part in the film festival and watch films, listen to guest speakers and partake in the festival events. May people think film festivals are for people who work in the film industry and they don’t understand that they too can discover new films and talent.

RONA:  They don’t realize that they have to really put in the work to promote their film and get an audience, this is not the festival’s job – as the festival has to promote the festival itself.  Filmmaker’s need to create a branded strategy to advertise their film, their showcase if you will, and strive to get publicity through the many local outlets by 1) being prepared and 2) creating a EPK (Electronic Press Kit) that can be tweaked and used over and over again at each festival. It takes quite a bit of work, but what most filmmaker’s don’t realize and this is probably the biggest misconception – is that the film may be in the can but the work just begins after the film is made.

There are so many festivals out there; what's your advice for how a filmmaker should go about picking which festivals to apply to?

MONIKA: First they need to know what their film can offer various audiences. Some films may fit into a niche – for example, if the film has Jewish characters then it might work well at the 160 Jewish Film Festivals, same goes for films with Greek characters, GLBT characters, Latino characters, etc. There are many film festivals that screen a particular niche.

RONA:  In addition to what Monika said regarding niche festivals, they also need to strategize the year – devise a calendar of what festivals are when and where and what the requirements are, for example – if a festival requires a premiere, what kind of premiere and if acceptance into another festival would negate the more important festival due to the premiere status.  All of this needs to be concisely worked out ahead of time so filmmakers will not be taken by surprise that they’ve just disqualified themselves from one of the top tier festivals because they screened their film in a nice but lower level festival prior to screening it at one of the festivals that required premiere status.

Once your film is accepted to a festival, what are the key steps a filmmaker needs to take to ensure that they get the most out of their film's festival experience?

MONIKA: Immediately, utilize the local press and send a press release to the local TV & Cable Stations, Radio, Newspapers and local blogs.  Use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to send out information that the film will be screening at a particular festival. Make sure you have postcards and posters available.  Try to get some posters up in the local shops, restaurants, etc. before the festival begins to help create a buzz.

RONA: Publicity is essential but the filmmaker should also make sure of the festival’s requirements and needs: utilize the festival programmer…ask questions…what format? What are some of the local newspapers, television and radio stations with possible contacts to approach with a press kit and possibly be interviewed prior to the festival?  Be strategic – if you’re not going to attend the festival, try to see if you can hire a high school student to help plaster the town with your posters, flyers and/or postcards to advertise your film.  Have a postcard that can be used for every festival and stick an Avery label where the addressee should be highlighting the venue, time and date your film is showing.  There’s a whole list of marketing and publicity opportunities to cultivate. 

Oh, and be sure to let everyone you know that you’ve been accepted via your database email list. Laurels placed on the poster and postcards also look great to show your film has been accepted into a number of festivals. This means others have liked your film just as much as you!

Everyone thinks that film festivals can only help your film, but are there situations where a film festival could actually hurt your film's marketing? 

MONIKA: If your film is great and you premiere at a smaller film festival that doesn’t have distributors, you lose your premiere status if a bigger festival wants to screen it as a premiere. However, some of festivals will still screen a film if it is a regional premiere – meaning it hasn’t yet screened in that particular area. There are Worldwide, International, U.S., East Coast, West Coast, Southern California, California, etc., etc., premieres. Any awareness of the film is not going to hurt it. The goal is to get as many people as possible to be aware of the film.

RONA: Sometimes this is unavoidable – You get bad reviews and it can kill a film’s chance for distribution at least with the larger studios and distribution houses. But not always so.  There are so many factors that these companies decide before acquiring a film for distribution.   Unfortunately you don’t have control over reviews and/or the buzz could be bad and you end up without an audience. Hopefully this won’t happen.  But it’s a possibility depending on the festival. On the converse side, a film with little buzz all of a sudden takes the festival by storm and spirals into big buzz – so the chance is worth taking.

Finally, why should filmmakers buy your book -- what sort of edge will it give them in the crowded festival market?

MONIKA: Filmmakers will learn how to target the right festivals for their film, the importance of having marketing material to best represent their film and learn about Sales Agents, Buyers, Distribution process from Industry pros… in addition to getting a list of close to 1,000 film festivals by region.

RONA:  Well I’d wished I had a book like this when I was starting out.  We are with you every step of the way in this book, as if the book is your own private mentor – you will not only understand how to target the right festivals, you will have a step-by-step approach to building your press kit and learn how to publicize your audience, increasing the chances of building a good audience for it and collecting those all important emails for your database to alert your supporters every step of the way who want to see you succeed.  This book is a very pragmatic yet entertaining read that will help filmmakers focus and strategize their film festival needs by understanding the many types of film festivals out there.  Everything you need to know in order to jump on the film festival bandwagon is included in these pages.  This is stuff they don’t teach you in film school.

The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals: Your All Access Pass to Launching Your Film On the Festival Circuit is available in bookstores and online everywhere.  Loaded with examples and inspiring yet pragmatic information, this step-by-step guide to film festivals offers filmmakers a bird’s eye view of what it takes to have a successful festival experience.

In addition to being producers and development executives, Edwards and Skerbelis are also the founders of ESE Film Workshops Online, where they offer the very popular 4-week courses, MANEUVERING FILM FESTIVALS and CREATING A PRODUCTION COMPANY. They are the authors of two critically acclaimed books, I Liked It, Didn’t Love It: Screenplay Development from the Inside Out and The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide: Your All Access Pass to Launching Your Film on the Festival Circuit.   They can be reached at

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