Setting off to attend the ICO’s Developing Your Film Festival on behalf of CINECITY—The Brighton Film Festival, I readied myself to take in a huge amount of information. This year, the course took place in Lithuania, during the 23rd edition of the Vilnius International Film Festival, and would consist of five days of nothing but thinking, talking and hearing about film festivals with 29 other participants from all over the world.
Fresh from the plane and after a getting-to-know-you introductory session, we drank wine and gossiped about our festivals: from Mexico to Kosovo, we were a varied bunch. It came as a relief that CINECITY wasn’t the smallest fish in the pond and to find myself amongst a number of similarly-sized festivals. It can be an isolating experience producing a festival with a small team and restricted resources, but to hear from others who also run their own festivals on limited means, and to see the original, innovative practices they put into place, was a huge comfort. The ability to take a step back from the day-to-day running of the festival and create space to share and collaborate in a supportive and stimulating environment cannot be underestimated.
As always, the ICO’s speakers were an impressive and varied line-up. What they helped me to realise is that much of what can feel overwhelming when you’re stretched for time or expertise—PR management, reaching young audiences, working with journalists—can be made much more manageable with a little help in thinking about it from another angle. Speakers did a very good job of breaking down their area of expertise for us, making it relatable.
Jenn Frees, for example, works in the sponsorship department of Toronto International Film Festival (the largest sponsorship department of any international film festival) but rather than leaving her session with the sense that what she had said had no relevance to me, I left with tips and strategies I felt capable of applying to my own festival. She encouraged us to not to think of sponsorship as asking for money but a partnership—mutually beneficial to both parties. This means asking yourself “what’s in it for them?”, knowing the value of your own brand, and tailoring how you work to each individual prospect. Jenn helped us to reconfigure how we think about brands that might work well with our own and how to use this information to pinpoint leads and create a prospect pipeline. Logo recognition is not enough to create a long-lasting and effective partnership: sponsors are going to want active engagement from your audience and the ability to track the ROI. Similarly, the ‘feel-good’ factor won’t go very far in the long run for potential sponsors—we must ask ourselves what drives their brand, what matters to them, and how we can help them achieve those goals and reach those audiences.
Sarah Boiling, Independent Consultant specialising in audience development, encouraged us to approach our audiences with understanding and consideration, helping us to imagine a visitor’s journey attending an event in our festival. What blockages might they experience? What might stop them from attending? Audience development doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the whole team must invest and believe in the development plan. Creating a plan will help you to be more strategic and helps to solidify the understanding across the organisation. Being specific is important: work out whether you’re trying to reach new audiences or develop existing ones. If new, how are you defining new? New to the venue, new to the festival, new to film? We also touched on best practice for conducting audience surveys—paper vs. digital, how to communicate with audiences regarding what the data is for, and how to manage incentives.
New Horizons in Poland, one of the only festivals which had a participant on the course and a guest speaker, Artistic Director Marcin Pieńkowski, shared with us the details of their recent successes in reaching younger audiences. Reaching new audiences doesn’t only mean adjusting your marketing and communication approach but starting with the content. As an annual festival, it can be easy to fall into the trap of becoming repetitive, Marcin warned us, and ending up boring your audience. Last year, in an effort to engage younger audiences, New Horizons wanted to keep their programme surprising. Using themes of resistance and protest, they sought to emotionally engage their audience by responding to the political landscape of the country. Creating opportunities for young people to engage directly with the festival meant they had a sense of ownership; hosting a DIY collage workshop to create the festival poster also fit perfectly into their theme of resistance.
It was valuable not only to hear from the other festivals on the course but also from our host, VIFF. On the last day, all a little fuzzy-headed from the end of course celebrations the night before, we were treated to a tour of the main festival venue from Algirdas Ramaška, Vilnius’ Executive Director. Algirdas was open about the inner workings of his festival, meeting our questions with honesty and transparency. The attention to detail his team applies to all aspects of the festival was impressive: an innovative approach to data means their team can be quick to respond to user’s behaviour when navigating the festival website; pre-film activities on the screen engages audiences while capturing their data; marketing materials listing the festival programmers’ top picks help visitors navigate the festival through a personal recommendation. When so often international festivals can feel exclusive and esoteric in their approach, it was also gratifying to hear how VIFF is currently working to reach audiences across Lithuania not just in Vilnius. We marvelled at the growth of the festival over the past few years as it now travels across the country, reaching audiences in smaller towns and villages with its diverse programme. The festival works hard to make its content available to the general public, not only its industry visitors, seamlessly blending the two. The benefit is immediately apparent: on the sunny Sunday morning our tour took place, the venue was buzzing and the 600-seat auditorium was full.
I headed home, brain stuffed full of information, feeling energised and excited. Developing Your Film Festival is a must for any festival organiser, large or small, who wishes to take their festival to the next level. The Independent Cinema Office create a bubble, away from the everyday of running a festival, in order for participants to explore and imagine in a creative and invigorating environment—what more could you ask for?
Film Hub South East wants staff and volunteers in our region to benefit from the best skills and from a broad knowledge of the best ideas. To support this, member organisations can apply for a bursary to support the training and professional development needs of staff/volunteers if they are screening at least twelve films per year. Click here to learn more.