Guide to comedy film-making: Film Festivals

Turtle Canyon comedy film - on set
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Want to know what it's like starting out in film-making and submitting to film festivals? We asked Turtle Canyon's Stuart Laws to give us some tips on how to take your first steps.

Filmmaking used to be a mysterious, unknown world that you could only dream about being a part of. Then it became something you could pretend you were doing when you borrowed the family camcorder. Then the digital age arrived and if you spent enough time and had really cool prop you could make a black and white thriller called Yesterday at Nine that twelve of your friends would watch. Now, in the internet world, anyone can make a film, put it online and have it watched by someone else on the other side of the world.
 
A major step for a filmmaker is becoming arrogant enough to believe that other people in the industry will care about your work and want to give you money to make more films. What do you do to make that happen?
 
First: don't get too ahead of yourself. Try and be critical of your own work: is it technically good, is the acting believable, is the story interesting, is the dialogue effective? Yesterday at Nine, my 2002 masterpiece didn’t pass that test but, at the time, I was so excited to be making short films that I was convinced of it’s quality.
 
If you’re happy that your film is not only good enough but also won’t be used to embarrass you in the future (and you own the rights or have clearances for everything in it: the performances, the music, the poster that the camera lingers on during a key beat), the next step is generally either: upload to YouTube or start applying to the film festivals in the pursuit of fame and adulation and MILLIONS OF POUNDS (no exaggeration).
 
 
As soon as you have a final cut of your film you can start applying to film festivals all around the world. The process has been made much easier these days with services such as Withoutabox allowing you to fill in the details for your film, upload a screener and then displaying upcoming festivals in a very handy list. You can then choose the ones that are most appropriate to your film, perhaps you’ll be focussing on specific genres or countries, maybe you’re prioritising prestige or maybe you want to hit as many low-cost festivals as possible.
 
Gone are the days of printing out application forms, writing out the same synopsis ten times a day, burning a DVD screener (or even exporting to VHS) and then lumbering down to the mail room with arms full of hope and jiffy bags.
 
(Withoutabox is also linked to The Internet Movie Database, this means that if you submit to festivals you automatically get your short film listed on the database. IMDB is a website that I used to spend hours on, just trawling through the trivia sections on films, working out who that actor was in the courtroom scene and wishing that I was a film-maker that had my own small piece of the database.)
 
The film festival route is not a cheap option and with most festival applications costing between $40 and $80 it can really challenge the wallets of most film-makers who have maxed out their credit cards just to get their dream project made.
 
To add even more danger to your bank balance you get charged for each application, no matter whether your film gets accepted. It gets even more ominous if you also consider that a person I know, whose job it was to assess films that were submitted to a festival, admitted that they would dismiss some films even though they had been in the kitchen making a cup of tea for the majority of the running time.
 
If you also consider that if your film does get accepted and you have the desire to go to that film festival, it can cost you hundreds of pounds, even if the festival is in your country of residence. And going can be a vital time when you meet people in the industry who only have to click their fingers to make you the hottest new filmmaker since Fede Alvarez.
 
Getting “officially selected” is a huge honour for your film, introduces you and your film to a new audience and puts you in the running for an award. Prepare for rejection though, at Turtle Canyon Films we have made around 40 submissions over the past 18 months and have had 13 acceptances - that’s a lot of failure. We’ve been able to attend three of those festivals and they’ve been brilliant - a superb chance to see your film playing to a proper audience of people who had no idea who you were before that evening.
 
 
If you get the chance to attend it can be a really rewarding experience, especially if people love your film and you get to say: “Well it was a wonderful team that made the film what it is”. Keeping a good relationship with the festival organisers is also important - they’re the reason your film is playing, they like your work and may be interested in your future films.
 
The other route is to immediately upload it to YouTube or Vimeo or one of the other websites that articles will tell you are going to challenge the big two and are perfect for indie filmmakers. Choose YouTube if you want it to be open to a bigger audience, don’t mind related videos and your short film is a comedy. Choose Vimeo if you’re pretentious (and want greater control of the player and related videos, a filmmaking community and more attractive presentation).
 
Once uploaded you may want to use the money that you’re saving on not applying to film festivals to hire someone to do promotion. Someone who has good contacts and loves your film. That person may well be you, in that case you save money.
 
Short films will never be a mainstream interest, the best game plan is to try for industry interest and aim for as many articles as possible, even if it doesn’t follow through to actual views. Get it written about on relevant websites and in popular publications as much as is possible in those first few weeks. You also pull in any favours you have, anyone you know who might be able to forward on that prestigious article will be incredibly valuable.
 
Always better to get the article itself forwarded on because that lends legitimacy to your project, it tells that person that other people think your film is good so it will be worth their time.
 
 
Of course the ultimate way to release your short film is do the film festival circuit and then release it online, boasting of all the amazing festivals that it’s played at. Most importantly, don’t forget that the main reason for film-making is personal expression, you’re announcing to the world that you consider a private thought you once had is worth turning into a film for the judgement of other people. A personal expression that you’ve loved doing and you should continue to love doing.
 
That’s the main reason for making any film - that it excites you, that you want to tell a story, that that idea you thought of yesterday, at nine redefines the action thriller genre for the rest of time, despite starring 18 year olds as merciless hitmen targeting other 18 year olds. 
 
* Yesterday at Nine played at zero festivals and is only available as a VCD directly from Stuart
 
To find out more about Turtle Canyon visit their website at www.turtlecanyonmedia.com/tcf and also at www.turtlecanyoncomedy.com
 
Person(s): 
Stuart Laws
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