How to Start Your Own Film Festival

by Michelle Svenson

In recent years, small festivals such as those run by Subway Cinema in New York or Broadway Cinematheque in Hong Kong have played a major role in introducing Korean and other nations' cinema to new viewers. Many of these festivals have been created not by film professionals, but by ordinary people with a passion for movies. For those of you who might consider starting up your own festival, or for those who are simply curious how it works, the following article provides advice, experience and encouragement.

Fifteen years ago, it would've been difficult to bring a film festival to the successful notoriety as many claim around the world today. Film critics and acquiring distributors looked to the already established market for well-known directors and well-financed films. Due to the rise in popularity of independent films and the help of Robert Redford, audience attention towards smaller film festivals outside of Cannes and Hollywood grew to spectacular paramount. As common, the film market outside of the United States led the trend, but it was the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah that paved the way for smaller festivals today, such as Slamdance, Taos Talking Pictures, Chicago Underground, and the Telluride festival. To credit the American director, Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger than Paradise," "Down by Law," "Dead Man," and recently "Ghost Dog."), it was he that helped the U.S. audience take notice of festivals around the world. Jarmusch's lack of faith, and lack of funding from U.S. sources made him popular abroad and the American filmgoers looked onward with him.

Today, distribution companies and film reviewers are paying attention to smaller film festivals that are seen popping up far and wide. One of the major film industry magazines, Variety, looks to Seoul, San Francisco, Belgium, Toronto, Ireland and any place where a film festival has brought new films and filmmakers to light to find their topics. If you've ever thought about putting together a film festival, this is the time do so. Some say that 5 years ago was the prime time, when Sundance was at its peak, but I deny this viewpoint. In the past couple of years, more and more filmmakers and audiences are becoming disappointed with the much hyped-about anticipation for the wintry festival in Park City, and are looking elsewhere for a renewing sense of hope. With the advent of the digital camera, the Danish film movement "Dogma '95" and the incredible Cannes win of Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark," the possibilities of more affordable movie-making has opened the door for lower-budgeted festivals in which to showcase them.

So how does one start a new festival? No money? No venue? No staff? Ah, but you know a lot of good films out there that haven't been seen yet, or least, not seen the way you could show them. Where do you start?

Query up a list of 20 potentially good films or kind of films you'd like to show. Figure out the theme of your festival. Dream up an ideal special event around these screenings, but stay realistic. For your first film festival, you're not going to have the allure of a Cannes or a Sundance film festival, at least not as we know them today. Instead, dream up a starter, a precursor to such famed festivals. Think relatively big (bigger than your living room) and smaller than well-known festivals in your local area. Somewhere in between is the best foundation for creating what could eventually become a booming film circuit.

Before getting into costs, perhaps it's best to look at the festival with some sort of outline, to give a sort of guidance. I've been a manager for all sorts of projects, not all of them film related, but I've always approached the jobs in the same manner. If you're reading this article, it's probably because you have a great affinity for films, whether as a viewer, a connoisseur, and/or a maker of films. If you've never made a film before, the mental process of creating one is not that different to coordinating a film festival. Like plays and music concerts, there is a pre-production, production and post-production phase.

In pre-production, you research, gather, dream, write and edit your narrative structure for the event. You can edit and edit your script for the event as many times as you like. Just try to bring it to as close as what you can imagine possible. I like to approach things with a very clear idea of what is absolutely necessary alongside some good ideas. As production begins, be ready to change the script a little here and there. You never know what other ideas people might bring to the table as production gets ahead.


Enough said about prepping the mindset. You've got big things to do, and a lot to do. For Phase 1, section 1, here is a list what you will need to make production possible.

Time-line: Up to 1 1/2 years before the Festival Opening.

* Staff (at least 2 people next to yourself)
* Good films
* Screening venue(s)
* Money

Sounds basic. And it is. However, all these 4 items take a good deal of work. Starting with the first need, staff. It's usually not that hard to find people who are willing to become part of a start-up for no pay. You'll want people who are as serious and as passionate about your end goal as you are. The recognition alone will be beneficial to them. Especially if your festival becomes an annual event in which people from all around anticipate. Those who help you in the beginning are or should be considered founding members of the festival, as long as they truly worked to help achieve the goal. In addition, dependent upon the gross income of the festival, you might even be able to offer a percentage of the profits towards the end. Of course, in the beginning, this is only a variable.

Next is good films. It's up to you to determine what's a good film or not. Pick at least 5 to 10 types that you know of and begin searching for others like them. Whether it's Korean independent films, all comedies, movies with a human rights subject or even just new releases from the past year - set up a criteria for your film festival. Great places to look are past festivals, in addition to screening venues in which you admire their programs. Call up or email the coordinator for each of these events and ask their recommendations for certain kinds of films you would like to showcase. They can probably even get you in touch with the filmmakers directly. Other sources include computer databases that archive newspapers and magazine articles. One such database I like to use is Lexis/Nexis. This computer software can be found in most university libraries, if you don't have any other form of access to it. The internet is a fantastic source, as are professors and film critics. You should definitely try to be in contact with as many film organizations in your area as possible. Not only can they help you find the movies you are looking for, but they may also be a potential partner in your festival. Which leads us to screening venues.

By now you should have some sort of idea of what kind of festival you want to have. This is a good time to start writing a generic proposal letter for the festival. The letter will describe the event, the scope of the event, the kind of audience you anticipate, and how much money you'll need. The proposal structure is a good start on how to write a letter asking for support on a project. You can find varying formats of proposal letters in most filmmaking guidebooks. One of the first letters you should send out are those to screening venues. Afterward, follow-up with your letters by calling the theatre managers directly to discuss the possibilities of sharing the festival at their venue. Be able to give a quick 3-sentence reasoning on why you should partner together. Try not to get into too many details over the telephone, and instead arrange a coffee or luncheon with them to discuss in richer terms. This way, you get to react to each other, maybe even rally up some new ideas together? No matter what, it's a great opportunity to meet and greet other people in your local film community, and sitting down together can help determine how your collaboration can benefit the both of you.

Go through the same process when seeking financial support. Look at cultural institutions, they may not have money to contribute per se, but they might be able to share their press or member databases. Or perhaps they can become a sponsor or presenter at your festival in which they contribute by having their publicists working on behalf of the festival. Any way you can get a related organization involved, it can save you dollars, even if it doesn't necessarily put cash in your pocket to spend. Be creative. One of my favorite ways to have someone join in on a festival is having them host a party! May it be the Opening or Closing Night party, in which they provide the food and drinks, (maybe even the invitations) plus you and they both get to have your organizations names together on print matters. Another good way to collaborate is have another organization create (and fund?) a panel discussion or film workshop at your festival. There are many ways in which to partner.

Absolutely look at corporations for gifts. Sad to say, the corporations that are the easiest to get money from are those companies that are often seen as controversial or even just plain out corrupt. By all means, if you are working on an environmental film festival, don't go looking for money from oil companies. Obviously, it's up to you to decide whether or not your morals will get in the way with any particular company willing to support you. It's a subjective matter, yet I just want to remind that the kinds of corporations willing to dish out the dough want to get their names out there. Remember too, that money from corporations will most likely come out their marketing department, or at least facilitated by them. That's fine, but remember that this also means that they have large target audiences that they need to reach out to. Your festival-goers may not be their market. If they are part of their target, they may only be a small portion. Most corporate gifts are already laid out a year in advance towards specific kinds of sponsorships. Many already know they want to sponsor one film event, one humanitarian cause, one sports event, you name the field, a year and a half before they are able to give any money out. Dependent upon their open call date, money towards the arts might already be gone by the time you get in touch with them. They don't always start sponsorship at the beginning of the fiscal or New Year either. As a good rule of thumb, to get the most and best results, begin seeking corporate gifts a year and a half before the opening of your festival.

Don't forget smaller businesses either. A little bit can go a long way. Donations of food from a nearby restaurant, a small portion of dollars any one can give in return for publicizing their name can all be spent worthwhile. And be confident when approaching others for any kind of support. You have a great project ahead, and unless they believe in your confidence, you won't have the best success rate for receiving gifts. Film is glamorous to a lot people too, and whether they have a lot or a little to give, the association with movies and movie stars helps them out too.

Apply for grants. Look at the fine print on the applications, as many are dedicated only to organizations with a non-profit status. Unless you already have such a status, applying to become a not-for-profit company takes a lot of work. I wouldn't depend on it for this festival, not unless you have a lot of time in advance to prepare for such an application. By a lot of time, I mean, at least 2 years before the festival. Otherwise, look for grants that can be utilized as a start-up organization.

Getting the money is the hardest part, but once you've got that under control, you can truly start shaping your festival in a tactile fashion. Now that you know approximately how much your budget is, here's section 2 of Phase 1:

Timeline: At least eight months before festival opening:

How many films can you show?

1- What kind of films you show can help you determine this; feature-length average at 90 minutes, extended features at an average of 120 minutes while shorts and many documentaries can vary anywhere from 3 to 60 minutes.

2- Screening venue(s): - What kind of formats are they prepared to show (in terms of equipment and projectionists)? - How many screening rooms do they have? - How many people can they seat? - How many hours in total do you have the screening rooms for?

Are you going to have a Call for Entry process?

1- Write up a list of requirements to make a film eligible for your festival. Also type up a questionnaire for information that will be easier to have before the selection process is completed. (Contact information for the director, producer and distributor, photos from the film, all factual information about the film: year completed, length, its available formats, and of course a videotape for your viewing purposes *. Look at other festival websites online for their applications and form yours from there.) *To be returned after the festival. Say a film print is destroyed upon arrival - Oy! - You will want to show on some format, and the videotape could be used as your substitute, though not the best quality. Also, you might want to make video-grabs for publicity purposes.

2- Publicize the Call for Entry a.s.a.p.

How are you going to select the films?

1- Are you going to view all of them yourself? My advice is to gather a selection committee to help you out, and to help give diversity and some objectivity, while also cutting down the number of films you have to watch on your own.

2- Whether or not you have a Call for Entry process or a selection committee, develop a strategy for viewing and judging criteria. Be ready for either an on-slot of films rushing through the door, or nearly none at all.


Time-line: At least six months before festival opening:

Once you're ready to select the films, you're on to the Production phase (Phase 2). Selecting the films is quite like choosing your actors, narrators or subject for the making of a film. You'll want to create a method that works best for you when scoring or judging the films. If you're working with a selection committee, expect to review the selection at least 2 and up to 5 times. When deciding how many films you will be showing out of your selection, consider the following in regards to both your budget and your labor: (Deadlines for each task are noted here.)

* Costs of film/video rentals (if the filmmaker doesn't lend the film to you free-of-charge, which is rare, but is possible). Time-line: No later than 3 months before festival opening.

* Shipping costs of the films. (Also, will any films be imported/exported to and from your festival? If yes, consider costs of a customs broker.) Time-line: 3 months before festival opening.

* Graphic Design. what kind of promotional material do you need it for, who will handle it and how much will it cost? (e.g. logo, postcards, flyers, programs/calendars, advertisements, a website?) Time-line: 4-5 months before festival opening.

* Printing Costs. Time-line: 2-8 months before festival opening. Vary per printing job, e.g. "Save the Date" postcards, 6 months before festival opening.

* Postage Costs. Time-line: Throughout the production phase. However, for audience invitations to the festival, mailing should be done apx. 2 months before festival opening. (In addition to press, don't forget to invite representatives from distribution companies)

* Office supplies.

* Festival Gifts? (Tee-shirts, posters, pins, pens, totes, you decide.) Time-line: 3-5 months before festival opening.

* Are the staff wages at the screening venues covered by the theatres? (Ticket personnel, Facilities/Janitorial, Security, Ushers, Hosts, Projectionists, if there's food service -Servers/Clerks.)

* Subtitles or translators. Do you need any films translated? Time-line: 2-3 months before festival opening.

* And a very, big decisive question: are you going to bring the filmmakers to the festival? (Transportation, Hotel, Food, Speaker's Fee or Honoraria.) If yes, book months in advance a large number of hotel rooms for your festival. Not all festivals pay for everything listed here, but remember that filmmaking is an expensive medium, and the filmmakers may not be able to afford to come or they may be too famous to expect to come for free or for too little. Time-line: 3-5 months before festival opening to have their accommodations set-up.

It's always best to review your budget and costs several times before making the decision to bring filmmakers, or select filmmakers. If you can't afford to pay for their hotel and transportation, expect to at least offer an honoraria and make food available to them, whether at parties or at buffet tables set up in a private room for the filmmakers. Again, offer what you can, as I cannot stress what a difficult market it is for filmmakers today, independent and commercial.

Be prepared to spend to spend more than you carefully budgeted. Anything could happen that could raise your costs at last minute. Say your graphic designer couldn't finish the program/brochure layout in time to send to the printer as they requested. They might charge anywhere up to 50% for the rush-printing job, and if your festival is 3 weeks away, you may have no choice but to pay it. It could be any kind of small mistake that leads to greater amount of dollars, so set up a safety net in your budget. In addition, you might want to book extra rooms at a hotel in the event that someone (maybe even press) at the last minute decides to come to your festival, but can't find a room. You can turn the room over to them under their credit card. However, be sure to find out the deadline for cancellations, and make those cancellations for rooms not assigned to anyone at least a day or two before then to assure you don't lose the money obligated to the rooms.


Ah, the actual screenings, parties, and other adjoining activities of your festival. This is like editing. Here you will discover you had too much or too little of this or that (too much food at the party, too few festival calendars to hand out). Take mental notes, and literal notes. Make sure the staff and you keep a notepad and a Walky-talky on you at all times. Everything up to here has made your festival, and this is all you have to work with. You can take away a few unnecessary items as you notice them, but it's hard to add on at this point. Make the best of what you got. And enjoy yourself! Gathering people together from different places for a common festivity you've put together is a good feeling. You're showcasing the art that you love and people are absorbing the art. You're giving a gift and whether or not you realize it until the festival is over - you're gaining a lot too. Not only did you do a public service, you also created a festival and made new friends. Just witnessing the gatherings in and out of the films and parties creates a family-like feeling. A family of film-goers!

Drama and Comedy to the Greeks was just as important as politics. The literal meaning for drama is "action" or "performance". Comedy in Greek translates to "komodia" derived from its root word "komos" meaning festival. They created a vocabulary dedicated solely to the theatre if not to emphasize the value, then at least to clearly describe the effects the theater can have on our lives. Not only will you witness this in the first person as the organizer for a festival, but you too will feel the cathartic results it brings to a collective consciousness. We humans need drama and comedy in our lives, to inspire us, to reflect us, to stir laughter, or simply just to get away from it all. Film is our modern day amphitheater; it is food for the soul. And your festival is just as the Greeks would have it, a 'festive performance'.

Oh, and if a film gets picked up by a distributor because of your festival - well then, you've done quite supreme. If you merely get recognized for providing entertainment not normally so accessible - then you've done better than well. If you just shared your love of films with others, well you've created magic - abracadabra!

Michelle Svenson lives in NYC as a freelance writer and is also the Project Manager for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian. A Korean-American raised in Choctaw, Oklahoma, she moved to Boston for college in 1990 and studied both Film Production and Art History. She is currently writing an environmental animation entitled "A Black Cat in Space" with co-writer David Carson (author of "Medicine Cards"), Peter Alden (National Audobon Society's Field Guide Author), Zakary Zide (Environmental Consultant from the California Academy of Science) and Dr. John Pezaris (Neurological Consultant at Harvard Medical School). Their expected public release is Spring 2003.

A few of the film festivals she has produced or co-managed are: The 2001 Native American Film & Video Festival for the Smithsonian NMAI in NYC; the 1st Native Cinema Showcase in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Environmental Film Festival of Washington, D.C.; and Burnt Whole (of Holocaust and Memories) for a travelling NEA exhibit for the Institute of Contemporary Art and Harvard Film Archives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Back to Korean Film Page, posted December 14, 2001.