One of our first blog entries here on Docs Interactive was all about documentary websites being a vital tool in helping to get the word out about your film even long before it is complete. But let’s say your film is done and you are ready to start applying to festivals and create some buzz about your film.
First, a very important point: No film is ever accepted to a festival or by a distributor or broadcaster simply because it came in gorgeously-presented packaging. If the story of the film isn’t there, no amount of perfect press kits, lovely loglines, or stunning stills are going to make up for that fact. So this is not a recipe for getting a press kit to make up for a less than well-executed film.
But if you have an amazing documentary that is likely to have a healthy run on the festival circuit or is a serious contender for television or a theatrical release, you cannot live by the film alone. Your job is to help make the life of the programmers, broadcasters, and distributors as easy as possible. You may want them to do the work for you, but ultimately you are your best advocate and need to showcase your film in its best light possible.
Here’s a dirty little secret: Festival programmers have very short memories (having just finished up programming more than 60 films for a small festival, I have discovered new limits to the synapses in my brain just to keep the titles straight). A festival programmer may be working solo or with a large team of paid staff or volunteer screeners. Even if your film is selected, it has likely been chosen from at least a few hundred entries (or a few thousand if you are talking top-tier festivals). By the time the programmer is tasked with writing up the films for the catalogue, she will not retain every detail about what was viewed. So she will return to your materials to refresh her memories. In some cases, she may crib directly from the synopsis you have sent. So you had better make that synopsis count because it may very well be the text you see word-for-word in a festival catalogue or a TV program website. You want it to capture what your film is about without giving the story away.
How to study good synopses? Take a look at the online catalogues of film festivals you admire or peruse a site like Mediarights and see which film descriptions jump out at you and make you want to see THAT film. Then look at YOUR film. Start with the journalistic Who? What? Where? and When? Then branch out to the Who Cares? What’s the story? Where and when is it happening? Who’s the character(s)? What is at stake for him/her/them/it? You may think your film is the best thing since sliced bread, but what is that makes it stand apart? Why would I choose to spend time/money/brainpower on watching your film? How can you get me to see it without giving away the ending? Convince me.
So how long should a synopsis be? While I would love to say, “As long as it takes to grab me,” you do have to take into consideration limited print space. Withoutabox, the online film festival submission program, got it right when they created a means to offer different lengths of the synopsis. Even if you don’t use Withoutabox, give programmers the maximum flexibility by offering different variations on the synopsis. A one sentence logline could make it into a press release on the festival or a TV guide blurb while a 30-word version might make it into a small printed program and a 60-word version on to a website or into a festival catalogue.
While a synopsis is invaluable in representing your film, there are a lot of other materials which can be invaluable in a press kit or other marketing materials. To see an example of a standout presskit, take a look at the film which is reviewed in our latest newsletter, Iraq in Fragments. And here’s a run-down of some of the things you should include:
You’d be amazed how many times we request a still from filmmakers for a Docs in Progress workshop and we get sent a postcard or a poster or a posed image of the characters from the film. A “still” refers to a high quality still image from the film which represents that film and can be used in press articles and on websites. No text. No titles. Just an image which speaks a thousand words. While I’ve just spent a few paragraphs saying it is the synopsis or logline that must capture attention, let’s remember that film is about visuals. The festivalgoer’s eye is going to go straight to the image, so pick one wisely. Although screen captures are becoming more and more professional-looking with advances in digital technology, we’d recommend making the investment to have a professional photographer snapping a few shots at the same time you are filming. Some filmmakers choose to have stills downloadable on their website. Others put them on a CD or even print copies for a festival.
While stills sell the film, production photos of the director at work on the set or the characters clearly being filmed can sometimes be useful supplement to scenes from the film.
Credits can consist of a single sheet or webpage with the principal credits for the film. You should also include a bio of the director and, where requested or helpful, of other principal contributors (producer, editor, cinematographer, star narrator or music, etc.). While filmography lists are sometimes useful (and some festivals may actually request this format), I’m partial to a bio of 2-3 paragraphs because it can more easily be cribbed for a festival catalogue of they are include filmmaker bios. Once again, the easier you make life for the festival programmers, the better your film will look in the process.
I have mixed feelings about Director’s Statements. At their best, they provide a window into the motivations and challenges of the filmmaker. At their worst, they are an exercise in navel-gazing or tell us what we are supposed to feel about a film instead of letting us watch it and judge it for ourselves.
If you are planning to do a Director’s Statement, it might be helpful to have a friend or another filmmaker interview you and then transcribe the interview to help put it together into a statement. At its most basic, it should give some insight into why you made the film. What was your motivation? What was production like? How did you meet your characters? Did you have any amusing, touching, or bizarre experiences while you were making the film? For inspiration, look at the filmmaker interviews done for the films which appear in PBS’ POV series films.
Other Items to Include, if Applicable
• List of festivals and other venues screened, including notations of any awards.
• Press reviews and/or quotes from well-known or well-regarded people or publications.
• Posters: Festivals love posters since it helps them promote their festivals. They are well worth the investment, but only send them after you have been accepted. Don’t expect to get them back at all or in good condition.
• Postcards: As with posters, only send these after you are accepted. Include space on your postcards to paste stickers with your screening information. And always bring more with you if you are attending a festival, since they may all be gone by the time the festival starts.
• Press Outreach Materials: If you are a super control-freak like yours truly, sometimes it helps to get that energy out by sending the festival your own press release (they may either ignore it or grab a line or two to use in their own press outreach). Also, if they are a larger festival with its own press section, you should check with them about sending extra screener tapes and/or a three minute scene which can be easily used by local TV media.
• Script of Your Film: Foreign film festivals or broadcasters may request this if they are going to provide subtitles, simultaneous interpretation, or dubbing.
Here’s a tip with marketing materials that is easy to overlook: identification. Make sure to put your name, your contact info, and the name of your film on EVERY page of your press kit and on the back of your photos if you are sending hard copies. Pages get easily lost or re-ordered in festival offices which are often staffed by a rotating cast of characters. Make sure a festival has all the following information for you: name, phone, e-mail, website for the film, distribution company address, and the filmmaker's home address (if different) for those rare festivals which might actually consider flying you in.
The bottom line of press kits and marketing materials is that, while they can’t make a bad film look good, they can make a great film look like the best film out there.
© 2007, Docs in Progress (authored by Erica Ginsberg)