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FIRST TIME AT THE FEST: 20 Guidelines for a Successful Festival
By Melanie Coombs
FIRST TIME AT THE FEST: 20 Guidelines* for a successful Market or Festival (*Producers don’t do Rules; ‘everything is negotiable’)
Over the last decade I have assisted new Producers as they attend their first market or festival. Here are 20 tips to help you enjoy the event while looking after yourself, your project and your professional reputation.
1. PRODUCING IS NOT COOL – tragically for us all, if you haven’t been completely humiliated you probably haven’t really financed your project. Be warm, not cool, and be all the things that make you a Producer – an Advocate, an Enthusiast, an Eccentric, a Charmer and an Artist.
2. PRODUCING IS NOT A COMPETITIVE SPORT – help each other. It is so rare that you are ever genuinely competing with your fellow producers – you have different taste, projects, Directors and are approaching different investors at different times. By working as a friendly colleague you will not only help others but will get their help in return. And you wont be alone as you go about the often frightening business of pitching into the marketplace for the first time.
3. DO NOT PITCH UNLESS ASKED TO DO SO. I know you think “That is why I am here…”, but trust me, people will ask. Despite how it seems at first, everyone wants to meet new talent at these events, so hold back, don’t throw yourself at people (I know of one young man who pitched to a Sales Agent at the urinal – sure it’s memorable and everyone was talking about him, but I don’t think they were talking about his film!). Do take advantage of organised pitching sessions, networking events and accidental meetings. Have a ‘lift pitch’ ready: one line to drop into casual conversations that people can then pick up on. (ie. Dog Daze: He hates dogs, She’s a vet, It’s a romantic comedy). Otherwise see this ‘non-pitching time’ as ‘networking with producing colleagues and market information gathering time’. You do not have to pitch to everyone you meet – less is more.
4. PROTECT YOUR BRAND FROM YOUR EGO! You are your own Brand; we are in an industry where art and business intersect, so how you act in relation to others is a KEY part of your companies profile and reputation. Your ego will tell you to get out there, be a star and make a splash! Your Brand needs you to do that in a measured, strategic and consistent way.
5. BE PASSIONATE, CONFIDENT AND DETERMINED, NOT PAINFUL, DESPERATE AND PIGHEADED. Passion is probably the most overused word in the industry, so don’t use the word, be it! Don’t tell me your project is passionate, funny, clever, or brilliant – show me! Let me tell you that your project is hilarious, inspired, ground breaking and magnificent. Let me tell you that you are hiding your light, and that you need to meet this investor or that who will love your project. Tenacity is a core producing skill but that does not mean hassling people. Do you think you are the first and only producer to pitch them the biggest, best project ever? Be humble and confident. Think of dating; do you want to talk to the desperado, who’s in your face buying you drinks you don’t want, boasting about how rich, connected and important they are, and then telling you how great you’ll look on your wedding day? OR the quietly confident person who’s standing back a little looking like they can’t wait to dance? With you. Be that person. Get the opportunity to show them how you dance. That means surviving rejections with humility, so that you are ready to show what great moves you’ve got.
6. CRY, BUT NOT IN PUBLIC. We are not making chairs; if a chair wobbles, all agree it must be fixed. With films we are turning ideas, literally Dreams, into a real physical product to be made, bought and consumed. We do CARE about our precious dreams – we’ve worked so hard to get them to this point – our colleagues and loved ones have shared our dreams and now someone has pointed out the ‘wobble’. And it’s true. Not only are we disappointed, but we are also going to disappoint all of those who have invested in our dream, everyone from our Writer to our Grandma. And so you will HURT, and that is OK. In fact I’d worry if it doesn’t. Go away into a private space and cry if you need to let the hurt out. Do it in private, alone or with a very close friend (not an industry colleague), rather than embarrass yourself in the marketplace.
7. DON’T GET YOUR MEAT WHERE YOU GET YOUR POTATOES. Festivals and markets can be great fun, we can often enjoy a drink or 5, and if unattached we may want to have a ‘festival fling’ all of which is fine amongst consenting adults – but do make sure you’re not getting messy with someone who you want to do business with. Especially if you are a woman – the double standards tragically still exist – so you don’t want a ‘reputation’ if you want to be taken seriously as a Producer.
8. PAY INTO THE ‘GOODWILL BANK’ AND REAP THE REWARDS. Be the most fun, kind, polite and generous. People like to be with fun people. People don’t enjoy anxious, scary, annoying, irritating, draining, or emotionally unstable people. Of course we are all ALL of these things from time to time, but do put that stuff aside and be FUN. Lend others a hand, a band-aid, a pen or an introduction to a financier or potential co-producer. And if you are polite people will remember – especially if someone has declined your pitch or project. By all means swear and bitch in private but face to face politely thank then for their time. You want to be able to open that door again and see a smiling face to greet you. Share power and information. Everyone you are meeting is part of the world-wide film community. Be the way you want others to be.
9. ALWAYS BE NICE TO THE SUPPORT STAFF. Lots of people are not; and it’s so easy to be friendly, it costs nothing. They will remember when you need help to send an urgent email or have locked your phone inside the conference venue. Remember they are all very likely aspiring filmmakers too. And if you make a good impression they will remember you when their career takes off and they are in a decision-making role.
10. LISTEN, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING YOU DON’T KNOW. This is especially important when getting bad news. They have already made their decision and it’s a NO. They will not change their minds in this meeting – especially if you are defensively talking at them. Listen, work out if you want to work with them, hear what they are saying. Are they actually telling you that you’ve pitched to the wrong part of their company? Are they telling you that you need to do more work? Are they telling you about the current state of the market? Let them do the work. And if you are really finding it painful, just focus on the spot between their eyebrows – it seems like you are looking at them and gives you the opportunity to internally regroup until you can listen properly again.
11. MAKE YOUR PROJECT UNDENIABLE – know what you don’t know. Work out why someone would say NO to your project and answer that question. And do it again and again – budget, cast, crew, script, marketing potential. Find the weak spots – easily identified when you are pitching, as you can literally SEE when they are loosing interest – and address the issues. We need to be faster, smarter, braver and more agile to stay in this game.
12. DON’T BE AFRAID TO DROP YOUR PITCH. You’ve arrived at the market to pitch but, in the first meeting or two the investor asks you lots of questions you can’t answer. What this means is that actually you are not ready to pitch. Stop, you are much better off not pitching that project at this market. You really only get ONE chance to pitch a project. Stop now, so that you can pitch properly later. Use the time you have to investigate what other opportunities there are for this project and other projects on your slate. If people ask you what you are doing say: ‘I have a number of projects at various stages of development so I’m doing my market research and networking’. Give them the broad brush strokes of your project but say “I will bring it back to you when it’s ready – we are still working on the package”. This is entirely legitimate – and in fact more of us should do it and it’s great to prep yourself by attending a market prior to pitching.
13. VALUE YOURSELF – how look after your self tells others a LOT. Dress well (and comfortably – leave the stilettos at home unless you really can walk ALL day in them with no blisters), stay at a ‘nice’ place close to the centre of the action, AND don’t talk about being poor, struggling, desperate and insecure – once again we are almost universally all of these things at times, but we are also amazing alchemists who turn dreams into reality and we deserve treats when we are out selling our wares. Want to pitch like a Princess? Treat yourself like a Queen!
14. DO NOT LIE. I know… it just slips out.. “Oh yeah, I saw that film/know that company….” This is a lose/lose scenario – nothing good is going to come from this conversation. No one has seen every film ever made, nor knows everything about film history, culture, financing and the international industry. And people enjoy telling you things they know.
15. DO NOT EXAGGERATE. Do not say you have Hugh Jackman or Nicole Kidman in your film UNLESS you really do have a signed letter from them or their agent (you lucky thing!). You will be found out and then you and your project and all your future projects will be dismissed. Remember your project is wonderful in it’s own right. You’ve got it to this point. You’ve packaged it with cast and crew as best you can. Don’t promise what you can not deliver. You will only disappoint.
16. DO ADMIT WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW. In fact most of the time it’s good to say you don’t know (even if you kinda do). Letting others tell you how things work empowers others as ‘people who know’, which makes them feel good and starts a relationship of information exchange. No one knows everything. We are all still learning. Be open.
17. DON’T LET ANYONE LIVE IN YOUR HEAD RENT-FREE (courtesy of Shaun Miller, of Shaun Miller Lawyers). Sometimes despite our best efforts we have conflict in our lives, and we build the agents of these conflicts into monsters in our heads. Sometimes they have really wronged us, or we have wronged them, but in either case what is thinking about them doing for you and your project NOW? Nothing? Kick them out of your head – make room for the new opportunities!
18. DON’T HANG ONTO REJECTION AND PAIN. If you are Producing you will be hurt. But you have a choice. Let it dominate your thinking and thereby effect your ability to participate in the marketplace OR… Acknowledge it and let it go. Literally, just decide not to think about it. Don’t start acting Paranoid. Even if people are out to get you… (that is very unlikely, actually, as mostly people and organisations are too busy with their own agendas) …acting the victim will do you no good.
19. DON’T SLAG ANYONE OFF UNTIL YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE TALKING TO. We all need to let off steam sometimes, it’s human nature, but watch where, how and with whom you do this. It’s a small world so make sure you know not only whom you are talking to but also who their friends are, who they share an office with, who they are married to…
20. HAVE THE 2ND THING TO SAY. So, exciting, you are going to meet a hero (and yes we are all still fans!). You have been introduced, you say lovely things about how much you like them/their work/their ethos, they say thank you…. And then you freeze up! Unless you have the 2nd thing to say. Doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful. Just has to be something that can start a conversation or allow them to end the moment. Do not compare yourself to them. Do not try to get them to read your project. Just tell them exactly why they are SO amazing and then say the second thing. Flattery is universally enjoyed, so the clearer you are in describing precisely why I am magnificent, the more likely it is that I’m going to want to talk, even if being rushed off by PR staff.
Finally: Don’t overwhelm yourself, have fun and enjoy this experience. You are at an event where people love film as much as you do. That is cool.
Melanie Coombs has produced award winning shorts, animation, documentaries and features since 1999 under her Melodrama Pictures banner. HARVIE KRUMPET won 2003 Academy Award ® for Best Short Animation. The animated feature MARY AND MAX opened 2009 Sundance, won Grand Cristal at Annecy and the Asia Pacific Screen Award APSA Best Animated Film 2009 and released worldwide. Melanie was awarded Screen Producers Association of Australia SPAA Feature Film Producer of 2009 Award. Melanie is now joint CEO of OPTIMISM FILM with Alicia Brown and Mish Armstrong. www.optimismfilm.