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The Next Step: Taking it to the Independent Feature Film Market

1 Jan , 1998  

Written by Memo Salazar | Posted by:

All week filmmakers peddle their films the way grocers peddle their produce. The only difference, of course, is that the stakes are much higher, as is the tension and desperation...

Having never attended this carnival of filmmaking, all I could rely on was second-hand information ("it’s insane!") from previous attendees. In short: The IFFM is a yearly gathering of filmmakers and film buyers. It is not a festival; it is a market like any other, and filmmakers peddle their films all week the way grocers peddle their produce. The only difference, of course, is that the stakes are much higher, as is the tension and desperation. Throughout the week, filmmakers are free to pursue their goals in any capacity; they can quietly hand out flyers or wear outrageous costumes as they chase down a hotshot studio executive.

Most filmmakers come prepared with 100 lbs. worth of promotional materials in all shapes and sizes. Rather than printing out thousands of expensive, full-color flyers, I designed a simple, catchy black-and-white flyer with the date and time in big characters. I also printed up 500 little circular stickers advertising The Tragedy of Tonsil. The IFP (Independent Feature Project) prints up a guide which lists all of the attending film companies, but they were late in posting this list, so I was not able to contact the companies I thought would be interested in my project ahead of time (I did contact a few using last year’s catalog, though.) Flyers in hand, my partner and I went down to New York.

What can I say? I loved it. The IFP is incredibly supportive of us, the unknown filmmakers with dreams. Sure, they have to play the game of indie film politics all week, but they are genuinely interested in helping you, the filmmaker, get your project seen. The typical day goes like this: the Angelika Theater begins screening films at 9 am. There are 6 rooms, all screening something at the same time. One room is devoted to works-in-progress (projected on video for a maximum of 25 minutes) while the others are screening either 16mm or 35mm feature films. Needless to say, the lobby of the Angelika is full of tension; desperate filmmakers try to entice anyone into watching their unknown masterpieces while rich, powerful film buyers unsuccessfully try to avoid them. With 6 rooms worth of films, nobody can see everything, so the buyers wander in and out of screenings, sampling the films like they sample the hors d’oeuvres available for consumption at one of the many hip social gatherings occurring nightly (but more on that later).

As if this isn’t enough, the IFP also runs panel after panel at the Cooper Union building — a mere 10-minute walk which gets a bit tiresome when you have to take it several times a day, in a rush, carrying all your promotional junk with you, consoling yourself only with the knowledge that all the Miramax people have to do it too. Though most panels are typically pointless and dull, the IFP panels were actually very useful and entertaining. You get to match the names you’ve heard all week with a face and personality, which is incredibly important in the world of indie filmmaking. More importantly, you get to know that person’s work style and taste through the way s/he acts and responds to questions, which will help you determine whether or not to approach him/her with your Big Project. Valuable information is shared with the crowd, and quite often adverse players in this game are shrewdly scheduled onto the same panel, making for some heated debating. It was fun (if nothing else) to see an acquisitions director from Miramax try to convince the audience to send their films to him exclusively while a fellow filmmaker with recent Sundance success sat next to him telling us the exact opposite.

Both the films and the panels run straight through until dinnertime, at which time there is a break (even the sharks have to eat real food) followed by the popular nightly parties, always sponsored by some industry giant (Sundance, for example) and always taking place at the kind of halls you usually only see in movies, ironically. Everyone tries to look their sexiest, but it’s easy to spot the big-time "I do this kind of thing every day" players from the not-so-big-time "I’m trying to fool you into thinking I do this kind of thing every day" filmmakers. For some, this gathering of schmooze, complete with an open bar, is the best part of the week. As for my partner and me, we opted to skip the last couple of parties and instead walk around the streets of New York. Don’t get me wrong; one of the greatest things about the IFFM is that you get to meet kindred souls who have as much passion for their films (and filmmaking in general) as you do. I met a lot of wonderful people throughout the week with whom I hope to remain in contact, but it’s hard to share your pains and joys with someone while Bjork is screeching away out of a hundred speakers and everyone around you is attempting to "bump into" John Pierson.

This was the basic routine: my partner and I would split up the day’s events; while she was at a panel on distribution, I would go catch as much of a certain film as I could; then we would switch, and so on, until dinner. In addition to all of this work, we had the task of promoting our film. As fate had it, we screened at 11:45 am on Tuesday, which was an "okay" time slot (the best days to screen seem to be Wednesday and Thursday, not too early, and not too late; the worst days are the closing weekend and any 9 am slot). Because it was early in the week, I spent most of Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday morning plastering the six-block area between Cooper Union and the Angelika Theater with my flyers (which the NoHo custodial staff continually removed) and putting a Tonsil sticker on every phone booth I could find (which the custodial staff failed to remove). On Tuesday morning we plastered the entire outside of the Angelika with TONSIL flyers, hoping (along with everyone else) to coax the world into watching our film. The result?

Well, we did a good job advertising, I must say. Everyone had "heard of that Tonsil movie" thanks to our flyers. But, alas, this is not how "conquering the IFFM" operates. The buyers have become immune to such tricks (one thing which we didn’t bother with but many others did was to flood every mailbox with promotional material, which the buyers simply collect and dispose of without even reading) after years of practice. We did get an okay turnout, but it wasn’t anything magnificent. Hoping that you will fare better, here are my suggestions:

Contact people weeks before the market! We did this a little bit but not enough. Use an older IFFM catalog if you have to (available at but do it then; a personal contact away from all the hustle and bustle is worth more than a hundred flyers at the market.

Befriend a famous person! It’s sad, but true — the few films at the market that were produced by or starred someone with a "name" were infinitely better attended, even with absolutely no promotion. The buyers do their homework (after all, it’s their job) and, as you know, a name sells. I’m not advising you to call up Quentin Tarantino and ask him over for dinner; personally, I’d rather see this sort of a thing go away. I’d be nice to attend a film market where all the films are completely unknown and lacking stars, and no one is chasing after anyone to get noticed. But since this is not the case, you should be aware of the facts: the knowledge that Steven Wright is in your movie will do more wonders than a bunch of free matchbooks.

Find the marketable aspects of your film. In my case, there aren’t many, but I did what I could. The whole film is told from a first-person point of view, so I advertised that. The main character is intriguing since he is a 24-year-old man who acts like he’s still nine, so I focused on that. Again, don’t dilute your project by making something it isn’t in the hopes of attracting attention, but do try to bring out that which will appeal most to someone who’s job it is to sell movies. Oh yeah — stay away from gimmicks, because the people shopping for your movie use gimmicks in their work the way bartenders use alcohol. You can’t con a con man, as they say.

BE NICE! Like I said before, being nice — sincerely nice — helps more than anything. There were a lot of ladder-climbing, plastic-faced people at the IFFM who only spoke to you if you had a blue badge (you get branded on day #1: filmmakers have green badges, buyers have blue) and they made the week less than ideal for those of us who were there because we care about our films, not our career status.

Keep things in perspective. Again, this goes back to your own philosophical beliefs. Why are you there? For some people, this was everything they had worked for, and the only hope they had. The bottom line is that if your film is not commercial or just plain lousy, no one’s going to want it, no matter how many credit card bills you have. We received a lot of compliments on the film, but absolutely no serious offers for it. I have spent all my time and money on Tonsil, so of course I wanted someone to want it. But I knew what the odds were, and so the lack of financial attraction to my film did not destroy my life the way it did to a couple of filmmakers there. Promote your film, but do it with creativity, not despair.

And that’s what I remember. Above all, enjoy the market! I had more fun there than in any vacation I’ve ever taken. They warned us to pace ourselves or risk burning out halfway through the week, but I could have stayed a month there, watching movies and meeting people, before the blisters on my feet would prevent me from continuing. I went home full of energy, ready to make a thousand movies the next week. There was such a sprit of community and support within the filmmakers that I met; we were all cheering each other on and attending as many films as we could with the hopes that one of us would hit the jackpot. Of the few feature films I saw, I think I loved Karl T. Hirsch’s Whatever the most (not to be confused with this year’s Sundance entry of the same name), but, like the many other great films I saw, this film has yet to find a distributor.

The number of submissions for film festivals this year seem to have doubled, making it probably the worst year ever for trying to make a living as an independent filmmaker. Isn’t that good news? Chances are if you really do have something to say, you’re going to find a way to say it, regardless of the odds. My solution is to distribute my film to theaters myself, an option which I am now just beginning to explore. I am also selling copies of Tonsil on video through the internet at a mere $12 postage paid, not because I think I’m going to get rich doing so, but because I’m tired of chasing after apathetic distributors who only care about profits and who, even if they want your film, will just take it and market it any way they want and using any poster designs they want, with or without your consent. This can all be bypassed through the internet; just like connects filmmakers through the web, I want films to connect with the audiences that are out there, distributors be dammed.

Whether or not Tonsil ever goes anywhere, I know that I will eventually make another one somehow, and that it will be a better film because of my previous experiences. If anyone has any questions on anything, feel free to contact me — I’d like to help as many people as I can (just like others have helped me). We really are all in it together.

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