A few months ago, I attended a film festival in the UK. I was invited there to provide consultation services to some of the filmmakers. I spoke with over a dozen filmmakers and saw their films.

Firstly, I do want to state that a film festival, no matter how small, is an exciting event. It is an excellent and important opportunity for the filmmaker to get audience reaction, meet other professionals and, perhaps, see the world. Being accepted into a festival is also a nice boost to the ego, an acknowledgement that your work may not go unrecognized, that you may garner an award or two and that you may even have a chance to obtain the often elusive and sought-after distribution deal.

But how important is it to have your film screened at festivals? And, even more pointedly, in how many festivals do you think it is necessary for your film to appear?

Among the filmmakers with whom I met, many had submitted their film to roughly twenty festivals. But one had submitted to 90. My question is: Why?! Sure, by sheer volume, your chances are greater that the film be accepted somewhere. However, at an average of $75 per submission, why do you want to spend thousands of dollars in submissions? Not to mention the extra cost of travel and lodging, if you attend any of the festivals where the film has been accepted. I felt when talking with these filmmakers, that they may not have necessarily thought through what they expect to obtain from their submissions, aside from the ego boost and being able to say that their film was accepted somewhere, therefore given credibility.

In fact, in conversations with filmmakers in general, not just at this particular festival, it has become clear that many do not have a clear strategy for festival submissions and beyond. They’ve worked so hard and in such a focused manner on the film itself, that they may have missed the essential: Who is your audience? Where will you find them? What do you really want to do with your film?

One filmmaker, Michelle Cove (“Seeking Happily Ever After”), expresses a good argument for finding your audience:

My doc got into two small B festivals (no “A” festivals) and it still had a good path, found its audience, and made money. So many people make it feel like festivals are the ticket to distribution and it’s just not true. All that matters is that there is an audience who wants to see it and you can get to that audience. If you have that in place, you can sell it through a distributor or yourself – it’s a business. I stopped putting money and time into festivals, and invested all that time into publicity – writing articles, guest blogging, creating an inevitable feeling of distribution, and that’s what sold it. In fact the distributor was happy we didn’t “overexpose” ourselves at festivals, so just envision a new path that you can control and think of all the money you’ll save on not submitting.

Many filmmakers think they must go the route of the A-list festivals. Everyone else does; they’ve put in all the work and money, worked with good talent, and produced a film they are proud of and eager to share, why shouldn’t they go for the “best”? Sundance received 12,000 submissions in 2012 for its 2013 screening. Probably between features and shorts. Sure, there’s the off chance you can get picked. Then, the really off chance that your film gets a great run, like “Little Miss Sunshine” eventually did. But, even if your film screens at an A-lister, then what? Many films screen at Sundance or SXSW or Toronto and then, if they don’t have an outreach or publicity or marketing campaign in place, nothing else happens.

We worked with Katina Dunn on the publicity for her film Kumpania, which premiered at the Madrid International Film Festival. The festival was small and under-promoted, but an important venue for Katina because of its location–and she found a good audience, gave exposure to the talent she highlights in the film (and this was indeed her mission with the doc: to show the world the wonderful art and the sacrifice of a group of flamenco performers in LA), and had a great time; in short, she danced with the people she came with (an adage that we often share with our clients: as the song goes “You gotta dance with the people you came with”). In Katina’s words, as she writes on The D-Word, and referencing Michelle regarding festival submissions:

Yes there is a gap between what some film fests say they want & what they program. It can feel like our submission fees support conventional thinking & those with an inside track. I have found many impassioned people with adventurous minds at the smaller fests though who really take risks. If you look at what films the festivals schedule, you can have a good sense of their aesthetics. IDFA alone had about 3,500 docs submitted to 2012 (maybe more I can’t remember exact figure). How we make a little splash is key to project survival and Michelle Cove above has great ideas. I wouldn’t turn up my nose at smaller fests – a festival is a festival after all. To be screened is wonderful. Who is to say that the staff who chooses [your film] for Sundance is any smarter or artier than the staff at, say, Foyle Film Festival in Ireland? I didn’t screen at festivals for distribution. I screened for exposure and affection for the project by people all over the world. I worked at local press, got audience quotes, etc. to use on the website and more. A great experience.

In short: know what you want when you go out on the festival trail. Katina’s film has screened in over half a dozen festivals and garnered several awards. She’s achieved her goal: not sales, but awareness and recognition, for her film and, more particularly, for the artists depicted in it.

So, these are the questions to bear in mind when considering your festival strategy:

As Katina also indicated above, a significant part of the festival experience is going to be what you do to make it work for you. It’s not enough to get accepted and then passively sit back and let the film be screened. The festival won’t get your audience in place for you. You’ve got to do the work. And you’ve got the tools at your fingertips: your film itself, its subject matter and its subjects are your best allies. I recently saw “Magic Camp” at DOC NYC. Let me tell you, Judd Ehrlich and his team hustled! The screening was packed, as was the after party. Not only did he clearly reach out to his close community and those familiar with the film subject, but he also drew crowds outside the theater by having the magicians who appear in the film perform their feats. Who can resist stopping to watch someone eat and breathe fire? This attention, as well as the quality of the film, have paid off. Judd has a quality line up of festivals, and great press.