Rolling out the Red Carpet: How to Navigate a Film Festival
When I applied to volunteer with the Edinburgh International Film Festival for the first time, it was with little expectation or design. I’d always loved film but, at that point, I’d never started to imagine it as being something that could become a career for myself. That film festival, the first I’d attended and the first I’d worked, would become the thing that kickstarted so much for me in terms of ambitions for my career, and the successes I’ve had.
It also opened me up to a whole new world of film: the scope of what is out there, beyond the big-budget Hollywood output that makes it to the mainstream. Independent film is more accessible than ever, between streaming services like Netflix that now distribute and exhibit a large amount of indie titles, to indie titles making it into longer distribution deals with increased exposure through awards nominations and the like.
Having just capped off my first film festival for 2019, I put my mind to thinking about some tips for approaching a festival for the first time, whether going in as a viewer or as a member of staff. It can be an intimidating environment to step into, from opening the fifty-page programme to navigating ticketing procedures or rush lines. Said festival is also why this is a week late, and with that in mind, check out the accompanying post of my recommended titles out of Hot Docs 2019 over here.
Let’s start with the programme. There are a couple of ways to go about this, depending on the amount of films and how much time you have but I’ll run through my standard method for navigating a film festival programme. I’ll start by skimming through the descriptions of the films, marking the ones that appeal to me, not paying too much attention yet as to when they’re playing. Somewhere in the programme, you’ll find a schedule – welcome to your new best friend. I’ll flick through my choices and mark them on the schedule.
At this point, you’re going to have some marked off that clash with one another or clash with other things in your life. (Wait, a life? During a film festival? What’s that?) Might as well scratch out any that you are not going to be able to make; hopefully, they’ll play elsewhere in the festival and you can pick up a different screening day. When it comes to clashes, I’ll go back to the descriptions for the relevant films and prioritise which I’d rather see, also keeping an eye on if there are some I could see another day, instead.
As much as I plan out, between working hours and scheduled films, I’ll sometimes end up with slots of time I have open. That’s the time I’ll open up the schedule, see what starts within the next hour, and make a snap choice of something to see. Some of the most unexpectedly great things I’ve seen have been by this method, things I might otherwise never have chosen for myself.
It’s worth keeping an eye out for any offers or promotions festivals offer. Some festivals will offer free screenings for students at certain times, or two for one offers on day-of screenings, and all should have some kind of system for getting free tickets for their staff and volunteers. Festivals can be expensive so make the most of these but – and I cannot stress this enough – if you really want to see something, don’t wait until the day-of in the hopes of maybe securing a discounted ticket. Things do sell out and no, we’re not going to let you sit on the stairs, no matter how much you argue.
Now, a word on titles. Festivals will typically have a mix of well-known names and anticipated titles with up-and-coming talent and smaller titles. It’s easy to get drawn in by the big titles and the flashy names but, the chances are, it will get a general release date, if it hasn’t been scheduled one already. Sure, if you’re a big fan of someone involved in the film, I’d absolutely encourage going, especially if they’ve confirmed to be in attendance. Getting to participate in a Q&A with your favourite director after seeing their new film a couple of weeks before general release is something special but if it’s a casual interest, don’t waste your time – or your money.
I don’t regret spending about six times a normal movie ticket price to go to the premiere of Destroyer at TIFF last year because it had Sebastian Stan in it but my love for space and Damien Chazelle was not enough to make me drop that much to see First Man just two weeks before it was out in cinemas.
This is a double-sided coin, too. There are some titles are film festivals that, once the festival is over, you’ll never be able to find again. I still daydream about the Russian sci-fi epic I saw a few years ago at Edinburgh that now only exists on a handful of second-hand DVDs with German subtitles. Take the unique opportunity you have to see such titles – you might be one of just a couple of hundred people that ever do.
So, you’ve made it to the festival. People mill left and right, lines snake here and there, people in headsets scurry past you with haggard expressions on their faces. You’re overwhelmed. Ticket clutched in one hand, you have no idea where to go. What now? Look for the volunteers. Easily identifiable as the people in the brightly-coloured t-shirts, these are your lifelines once you’re inside. These are the people who will get you where you need to go. There are hundreds of them. Use them. They know things, I promise. And if they don’t know, they’ll find someone who does.
On that note, I beg of you, be nice to film festival staff. I shouldn’t need to say this, for any customer-focused industry, but I will, all the same. The ten-to-twelve days of a film festival are an immensely fast-paced and stressful time for every member of staff; they’re long hours, little sleep, a blur of faces and films and trying to remember what day of the week it is. If I’m telling you that the venue’s not open yet because you’ve shown up five hours early for an in-person event (looking at you, True Blood fans) it’s not open yet. If a film’s sold out, arguing with us won’t make more tickets appear.
It may sound crazy but we do want to get as many of you in that film screening as we possibly can. It’s not just for you – the more people in seats, the better it looks, the better for the filmmaker. Film festivals are trying desperately to please not just the moviegoers but also the filmmakers and guests to the festival, all for the same reason: we want all of you to come back.
The nicer you are to us, the more you stand to learn, too. We know the ins and outs of the festival, we know what screenings are more likely to sell out than others, and we are in the unique position of often receiving recommendations from industry professionals who pass us. From film critics to filmmakers, I’ve heard their honest opinions on what I should see and what I can pass on and it’s led to some special discoveries.
Perhaps most importantly, whether you’re attending or working a film festival, look after yourself. Stay hydrated, remember to eat, remember to sleep (note to self). Our CEO at Edinburgh reminds us this every year at staff training and every year, we laugh. But, really. Do it.
And one final note which applies not just to film festival screenings but to all walks of life that may bring you to being involved in a Q&A session. Q&As are possibly the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever encountered. Without fail, someone will stand up to pose a question that’s not a question at all but a five minute long statement on what they think. Sit down, no one cares. Without fail, someone will stand up to pose a question about that-thing-that-actor-is-best-known-for-but-would-love-to-never-have-to-talk-about-again. Sit down, no one cares. Without fail, someone will stand up to pose a question that’s not a question at all but a ten minute long personal anecdote.
You know what’s coming right? Sit down, no one cares.
And, if you think I’m joking about that last one, I recently sat in on a Q&A where a woman spent ten minutes telling Viggo Mortensen in a round-about way that he’d once driven her home from a party some twenty years ago. In a Q&A that wasn’t even about Viggo Mortensen but about a film that he was presenting for discussion. That he also wasn’t in.
For the guest, the people around you, and your own dignity – just don’t ask stupid questions.
And, on that note, I’m going to take a nap before I have to do it all over again. See you soon, Edinburgh.