Effective film distribution means finding active audiences, wider recognition, and well-deserved love for your film and your issue. Romancing film festivals could be your best move.

By Freyana Irani.

The internet has redefined the playing field for film distribution: uploading your film online is quick, cheap, and effective. But film festivals, like other old-school distribution methods, shouldn’t be forgotten in our modern-day romance with the internet. For starters, there’s popcorn. Snacks aside, festivals offer a level of interpersonal engagement, focused attention, appreciation and love that you simply can’t get from a computer screen. With a good game plan, festivals can provide access to a community of enthusiasts and potential activists ready, willing, and able to jump on your bandwagon and build your momentum.

The cover for Stores of TRUST prominently features the festivals' laurels.
The cover for Stores of TRUST prominently features the festivals’ laurels.

Film festivals have been a major part of WITNESS’s parallel online and offline distribution strategy for Stories of TRUST: Calling for Climate Recovery—a series short films co-produced with Our Children’s Trust that profile U.S youth who are taking legal action for climate justice. To date, 23 film festivals have selected these films as part of their programs, and the films have won nine awards, including Wildscreen’s coveted Panda Award for the Best Campaign Film. Our festival allies have been essential to heightening awareness of the broader TRUST campaign and building an active and supportive following.

Festival selection and awards give a film project and its creators legitimacy and street cred. Having your film selected is independent recognition of its merit and quality—or at the very least, formal confirmation that someone other than your mother watched your film and thinks you are brilliant. And a bit of strategy goes a long way—listing festival nominations or awards boosts your bargaining position when fundraising or seeking distribution support.

Audiences that Click (or, Finding Your Type)

Submitting to film festivals can be time-consuming and expensive, so be clear and strategic about the content of your film, your target audience, and your message.

Before deciding where to submit your film, consider who you are trying to reach: the believers or the non-believers? The experts or the uninformed? A local, national, or international audience?

It is a more effective use of (often limited) finances to screen your film at curated festivals to self-selected audiences, than to aim for the big players. Film festivals come in all shapes, sizes, scales and scopes. Specialty film festivals with narrower focuses offer many benefits. Festivals like Sundance and Tribeca have grand reputations, cool cowboy names and suave city-like vibes. But cowboys are rough players, and city-folk are unrelenting. Well-known film festivals attract tens of thousands of entries, and reach an audience that may be less disposed to appreciate you and your work, just the way you are.

Stories of TRUST, for example, aims to inspire rather than to persuade, so Our Children’s Trust and WITNESS chose to submit the films to specialty festivals that attract people interested in the environment, human rights, or  video advocacy. WITNESS’s decision to submit TRUST Colorado to the Colorado Environmental Film Festival was based on the recent wildfires in the region and the fact that film’s subject, 11 year-old Xiuhtezcatl, could be at the festival in person to champion the film and inspire audiences to take action to stabilize our crashing climate.

And don’t forget to ensure that your film fulfills the festival’s eligibility requirements. Some film festivals are strictly monogamous, and will not accept films that have already been distributed online.

Beyond the event itself, film festivals offer filmmakers unique distribution opportunities and channels for outreach:

  • Traveling Film Festivals – These allow for continuous and ongoing distribution of your film. They are the village bicycle: they get around and they spread…your message.
  • Untraditional distribution – After the MY HERO International Film Festival, for example, Stories of TRUST were distributed to schools, libraries, after-school workshops, and community centers, thereby directly reaching our target audience: youth.
  • Mainstream Media – Several youth plaintiffs featured in Stories of TRUST were interviewed on local radio stations as part of the festival,
  • Online – If your film is featured on the festival’s YouTube channel and playlists, that’s valuable free online advertising.

Interpersonal Engagement (or, Making Friends with Benefits)

Festivals provide an arena to engage with viewers outside of the screen, contextualizing your film with discussions and debates. Q&A panels, forums, classroom discussions, and workshops are all excellent opportunities to make a deeper connection with audiences.

Kelsey Juliana, a plaintiff in the TRUST litigation campaign and the subject of TRUST Oregon, joins the filmmakers and producers for a panel at Wild & Scenic Film Festival.

These off-screen activities are more than a chance to engage and persuade—they’re a chance to keep in touch and build something meaningful. Festivals have active on- and off-line followings, as they conduct extensive outreach through traditional methods, such as sign-up sheets, and via social media platforms. Capturing the names and contact details of potential supporters builds your membership and expands your own advocacy contacts.

Festivals also present opportunities for collaboration with like-minded groups who can further your cause within their own outreach methods. For example, it was through the Wild & Scenic Film Festival that WITNESS found the opportunity to curate the Climate Action Handbook—a climate-action database collating information on the participating organizations and filmmakers involved.

A dual-distribution strategy engaging online and offline distribution methods can propel your film and build supporters for your cause. And with a good game, the relationship between filmmaker and film festival can last longer, and have more value, than one night of champagne and flattery (however glorious that may be).

Many thanks to our fantastic film festival partners:

Freyana Irani is a volunteer assisting with WITNESS’ work in forced evictions and video editing. She is a writer and has a background in human rights law and advocacy, and film studies. 

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