10 tips for curating a film festival despite having no idea what you are doing!

Posted on March 27, 2014 by Jim Morton

Categories: Cinema Careers, General, Training & Conferences

LUC Festival screening 2013
A screening at Leamington Underground Cinema 2013.

After a couple of years of running all manner of chaotic film events under the banner of Leamington Underground Cinema, I decided it would be a good idea to put on a film festival. But keeping in line with the LUC ethos of showing cool, underground, unusual material, I wanted to avoid programming familiar, generic movies. I wanted to curate a cool event that would give the local audience a real alternative to the mainstream. So without thinking about it too much, I went ahead and announced the festival at the end of January 2013.

This rather pretentious goal was challenging for a few key reasons:

  • I had close to zero relevant experience and skills
  • I didn’t have any films to show
  • I didn’t have a cinema or venue to show them in

To immediately spoil any sense of suspense that has just been built up, the festival did come together and go ahead rather well in September 2013, and you can read about the stuff we showed over at the LUC website.

The main point being that despite a lack of knowledge or experience with enough effort and enthusiasm, anyone can put on a film festival. So if your city/town/village needs one, get cracking on it straight away. But to help you avoid some of the pitfalls and learn some of the lessons of the LUC Festival, here are ten key tips to help you out. Feel free to use or ignore as you see fit:

1. Check your dates

You will want to avoid things like big sporting occasions, royal weddings, local events etc. If college/university students are likely to be a significant part of your audience, then factor that into your choice of dates, exactly like we failed to do.

In terms of length of your festival, the first LUC Festival was a full week which very nearly killed those involved – I’d recommend an absolute maximum of four days for your first go. Additionally make sure that you have absolutely nothing to do the following week you will likely be a wreck.

2. Go ahead and announce as soon as possible

LUC Festival 2013 posterOnce you’ve told the world that you are going to run a festival, then you’ve really got no choice except to go ahead and do it. You can then also start calling yourself a festival director, if that is your thing.

Get some cool announcement posters sorted and get the website up and running this is going to make you look far more credible when you start asking people if you can show their film/use their venue etc. You may even fool them into thinking that you know what you are doing.

3. Recruit brilliant volunteers

Setting up this sort of venture is far more work than you can reasonably expect, so you will need a whole load of help. The trick is to somehow get a bunch of brilliant, friendly, helpful and creative volunteers involved to help out with planning, marketing and running the festival. They will end up holding the whole thing together while you flap around in a whirlwind of stress when the sound isn’t working ten minutes before your first screening.

How likely you are to get a fantastic team together like the one that ran the LUC festival is really a question of how charismatic, interesting and magnetic you are. Or complete blind luck.

Either way, a key point to remember is that you must give all volunteers ID badges and lanyards – they will go mad for this, I have no idea why.

4. Capitalise on all your wasted years – then add to them

All that time you’ve allegedly wasted watching films, reading about films, talking about films and writing dodgy reviews is about to pay off.

All the money you spent trooping down to London to watch films that were only showing in some obscure cinema, or importing foreign oddities on DVD at insanely inflated prices will not have been in vain.

Floating around in your head is a huge catalogue of movies that you can now draw on. Your first festival is not going to be purely about premieres and brand new movies. So you need to start working out what existing films you would like to show and what kind of programme your festival is going to have. Treat curating like making a mix-tape of all your favourite stuff and you will be on the right track.

You will also have to spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the internet looking for new and exciting films that you think will fit with the programme. This is no longer time-wasting or slobbing about it is research. You can tell people that.

5. Get short film content from the filmmaking community

There are hundreds of thousands of people out there making short films and in most cases what they really, really want is for people to watch and enjoy them.

This is a huge potential pool of original content that you can use to help programme your festival. You need to do two things:

a) Get people to send you their content

b) Choose what you are going to show

You can deal with point a through blogging, social media etc but to really generate interest you may well want to offer a prize. We offered a £1,000 prize for the best short film submitted to the festival but crucially didn’t charge an entry fee.

This helped provide credibility and good will amongst the filmmaking community as we weren’t looking to exploit hard-up filmmakers as so many festivals do. The benefit of this approach was that the first LUC Short Film Prize got a lot of coverage/social media sharing from figures in the industry and organisations like the BBC and Channel 4.

On the other hand we had to workout where to get £1000 from to cover the prize – fortunately some generous local sponsors and a quick search down the back of several sofas were able to cover it. You may well want to look into crowd-funding, it is something that LUC is thinking about this time round.

Once you have got a good flow of content coming in you are going to have to pick through it and work out what you would like to screen. Don’t underestimate how long this is going to take as you may well want to get a bunch of people doing an initial first pass and then sift through the best stuff yourself. We got about 800 entries and I went through all of them myself – even as someone who loves film, I really don’t recommend doing that.

However you split it up you will end up with some amazing content and a whole bunch of filmmakers will get their work screened at a festival, which is great for everyone involved. Our shorts programme from 2013 is up on the LUC website.

LUC Festival screening 2

6. Be brave in curating the programme

If you’ve already decided that you want to run a film festival, the chances are that you have a keen and broad interest in cinema. You almost certainly have your own specific tastes and views on what makes for a good film, hopefully this will dovetail with what your potential audience is interested in you are going to find out fairly quickly if it doesn’t.

Based on a number of arguments that I’ve had in pubs your local audience is going to fall broadly into two camps,which I have given terrible titles to help distinguish them:

  1. Drifters People who are more likely to go out and watch mainstream films that they have already seen before. They want the comfort of the familiar, not the shock of the new. They are like the bloke in that episode of Phoenix Nights who shouts at the alternative comedian Tell us a joke we know!
  2. Seekers People who want to see films that they know very little about, or are excited/intrigued by. They are ready to be challenged, shocked and entertained while learning about new films and filmmakers.

If you do any formal or informal marketing, then you will probably find out that you have more of a guaranteed Drifter audience than Seekers. This would logically lead you to creating a programme to fit that audience.

That is problematic for a couple of reasons, firstly it is completely, utterly deadly boring and secondly, you will be competing with events and organisations near you that have exponentially more money and resources at their disposal than you will at this point.

So, you should set out your own idiosyncratic, interesting and intriguing festival programme, aimed at the Seeker crowd, but with aim of converting some Drifters too. This is riskier, but far more rewarding, plus making the festival more personal to you will make you work much harder to make it a success.

7. Use a variety of venues

If like LUC, you don’t own an actual cinema then this is a measure borne out of necessity as well as design.But involving a whole load of different venues will turn your festival into a more community-based event as well as widening the publicity and potential audience. Each venue will have a different natural catchment in terms of population and appeal.

Different venues may suit different types of films plus you can use this variety in characteristics to provide different experiences. Some screenings might be less formal than others, some may involve interaction or quizzes certain venues will be ideal for having music as well as a film. Investigate the potential of each venue. Like you,they will want to get as many people in as possible.

Always try to use venues that have a bar everyone likes having a drink while they watch a film.

8. Get a girlfriend/boyfriend who is brilliant artistLUC Festival 2014 poster

If you are currently single then comb your hair, spray on some deodorant and make this one of your top priorities as you need someone who will do loads of work to create all of the artwork that will make up the visual identity of your event.

Having a whole load of distinctive, iconic posters up around your locale in the months before the festival is an essential part of creating awareness and anticipation.

I’m lucky enough to be in a relationship with the outrageously talented Art By Prescription which saved some trouble I can tell you.

If you are unable to attract an artist, or have qualms about abandoning your current relationship or marriage for the sake of some brilliant posters then audit your immediate family and close friends for artistic talent.

9. Make a trailer

We used all manner of physical and virtual advertising, from the aforementioned posters and getting in the local radio and newspapers through to an exhaustive, scattergun and probably quite annoying social media stuff. But the most effective thing we did was to make our festival trailer.

This was helpful in a number of ways, it helped define the personality and feel of the festival, it showcased the programme, plus it was easily re-used at other events (your local cinema might even show it if you are luckier than me).

You should definitely make a trailer for your festival it is quick, cheap and a lot of fun. If you are rubbish at that sort of thing you will almost certainly know a whole bunch of creative types who will love to have a crack at it. Make sure it is funny,shocking, memorable and leaves people wanting to know more.

10. Get fitter and more zen

Arranging and running a festival is a stressful and generally unhealthy experience. I went into it as an unfit and far too sedentary individual. A week of not sleeping, eating at unusual hours and bursts of extreme stress and anxiety burdened onto an already out-of-shape frame took quite a toll.

I have resolved this year to spend the months before the festival getting much more fit and working out how to make the experience less stressful and more enjoyable.

Being well organised will certainly help you avoid stress, as will getting as much help as you can from volunteers and venues. But I would really recommend getting in the habit of a few miles on the treadmill or bike to get you physically prepared.

Thank you, Jim!

This year’s Leamington Underground Cinema Festival runs from 7 to 11 October 2014, visit the LUC website, Twitter or Facebook pages to find out more.

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