Public Relations – Film Festivals for Filmmakers

For most filmmakers, short film festivals and events represent the only opportunity they have to present their films to an audience. Any further exploitation of their work (such as TV, DVD, internet, archives, art scene) is only ever open to a small number of films. There has already been much debate and reporting about the complex causes of this. But for their own part, filmmakers regard short film festivals especially as important forums for exchanges, as markets, as places of self-assertion and discourse, and last but not least, as adequate screening locations for their films1.

In addition to the fact that the films gets screened at all, other decisive aspects here include which festivals select the film, which festivals organise a market presentation, in which special festival programmes the film is screened, and which additional activities and initiatives the festivals undertake. Opportunities to switch from the short film scene to a film or video related art scene remain highly limited and are deeply dependant on market positioning and communications, as well as the commitment of individual curators and ultimately also on chance.

Currently there are up to 90 festivals in Germany screening short films2.  The categorising of festivals into five groups, as suggested by Michael Jahn3, is not something that is always discernible for the filmmakers. And for those filmmakers whom the quality of their screenings is paramount, this question is irrelevant anyway. But for those who know that they want to position their films in specific programming blocks, in order for instance to participant in the German Federal Film Board’s (FFA) reference funding system, this is not the case. Furthermore, the differing quality of the film markets and market presentations partly associated with the festivals determines the level of attention a film or filmmaker is accorded by potential buyers, producers, curators and distributors. And this is especially so for those films which do not make it into the regular festival programmes.

Quality Control

Hence while potentially the filmmaker already has a kaleidoscope of quantitative festival exploitation measures available to him, their efficiency and impact can only be measured in terms of the quality of their implementation, and vice-versa. And in parts, these vary considerably. Thus for filmmakers this means that not only quantitative details are relevant, i.e.  how much effort is put into a festival statistically speaking, but also under which qualitative aspects this occurs.

The difficulty in judging this begins with each festival’s self-presentation and ends with the internal structures of the festival management. While several festivals talk about having a “profile” when they serve up special programmes and categories, with other festivals and events it is difficult to distinguish the programme selection from some arbitrary or inextricably linked structures. And there it becomes obvious that the festival programme maker is just as unable as the filmmaker is to determine in advance the direction of the programme content. Yet the programme’s structure should result from the range of submissions made or those films invited for screening. However even aspects which directly accompany the event, such as panel discussions and special programmes, are not able to make up for when a festival profile is already lacking in advance – and not only on a formal level – nor can they ultimately save a festival either.

In addition programmes with a colourful mixture appear, through the heterogeneity of the films presented, as though they are unintentionally playing the films off against each other. This results in a stalemate overall, and not only on the festival screens but also in the heads of the viewers. Yet by contrast, being proactively selected for a curated special programme is nigh on impossible and solely depends on the level of recognition already in place for the film or the brand (as director or artist) as indeed on the qualitative connections of the curator.


Festival promotion occurs in two different directions and to differing extents. On the one hand festivals promote themselves to filmmakers and potential submitters of films, while on the other hand they also do promotional work to generate festival audiences. Filmmakers get informed via newsletters because they are on certain mailing lists or they belong to certain peer groups which distribute the information for instance by email, word of mouth or flyers. Furthermore, calls for film submissions can be found in the listings on festival portals and are included with the general festival promotional activities in the print media and so on. However as advertising is expensive here, festival PR work is accorded a higher value in this connection. This succeeds ever better depending on how institutionalised the event is, and on how strong the network is between those responsible for the festival PR work and the media editorial offices. When a festival is still young and barely established, even a PR person with press experience has a hard job reaching more than just the local press. Where trainees are responsible for the PR activities, they often find themselves overwhelmed, because in the PR business it is irrelevant whether college homework or seminar reports were written brilliantly. Instead what counts here is co-ordinating the decisive parameters such as viable contacts, efficiency in terms of content and an understanding of the issues facing editors. Information prepared in an appropriate way helps media editors to formulate their own texts, images and video reports, something which they often have only minimum time to prepare. And at the latest it always becomes clear at this point that material provided by the filmmakers must in fact be reworked unless you want the press releases to only recount festival events.

However what this means is that the festival’s PR person must him- or herself rework the information provided by the filmmaker, or the filmmaker must take over this task – and that for every single festival. The absurdity of this situation is obvious. Neither the festival PR person nor the filmmakers can perform this work by themselves.

Repetition Effect

In accordance with an EMS study4, “for the recipients a minimum number of contacts are necessary in order that a certain advertising impact can occur at all. Analysis shows that a frequency of at least four to six contacts must occur in order to be consciously perceived.”

If it is assumed that a festival screens a film a maximum of two or three times and the film is mentioned in the festival catalogue in a truncated form with a thumbnail and a few lines, then it quickly becomes clear that the attention accorded to filmmakers and films, from which festivals live, drops even more depending on how individually spread out this information is which must also compete with much other information of an equal value. And if the filmmaker is unknown anyway, the impact of the one or two screenings is reduced to zero. The same is true for film in the art area.

Apart from the numerous interesting issues resulting from this about the financial structures of such enterprises, which however will not be further dealt with here, the quality of this festival evaluation aspect is dependent on quantitative presentation measures – related to the individual person5 – which festivals cannot afford or are not willing to afford, yet which they ought to for their own festival promotion.

Festival Organisers

However in order not to overlook the aim of a festival and in turn the opportunity it provides for a direct exchange6, there are numerous strategies available to each one here. These include informal brunches, a tourist programme, parties and clubs, but also theme-related talks and panel discussions, as well as press and info boxes or one-on-one meetings. The smaller and more local a festival and its screening locations are, the quicker new friendships arise and the more directly any exchange occurs. The more open the programme structure is here, the easier it is to decide to participate in the “networking activities” offered, with the opportunity in turn of really meeting “somebody”.

Furthermore, it frequently occurs that those festivals elevated to social networking and community events generate an exciting wellness feeling. It goes without saying that festivals feel obliged to carry out this self-marketing,  through which they are also striving to gain participants in future events as well. And whoever is able to effortlessly convey a cool image and at best create hype, their festival strategy has paid off. Yet while at first glance this may be welcome for the individual filmmaker, it is an aspect which comes in the area of direct marketing.

Doing this, the success of the network marketing is powerfully dependant on the social integrity of the participants. However this is something which can only first reveal its complete impact when the marketing idea as such is completely forced into the background, and the resultant intensive and open discussions on specific themes have a more incidental character. Everything else is felt to be uncool and tense. Correspondingly, the reach here remains limited to a small group of people. However it can be increased through word of mouth which is effective over the short- and mid-term.

Furthermore in programme- and theme-based discussions which accompany a festival as special events, filmmakers can present their viewpoints and their know-how to larger groups and on the basis of this create indirect connections to their own work, if at all. However this does presuppose that the connection between names and film titles is already generally known.

Thus potentially there are varying opportunities to exceed the required “minimum number of contacts with persons” mentioned above. However it should be noted that direct contacts only have a limited scope for a multiplication effect. Unless they are directly supported by the festival, memory effects ultimately only function efficiently in rounds of discussions, through flyers and posters as well as via follow-up work after the visit to the festival. Or else through the regular presence of film work and filmmakers that extends over many years.

Assisted Viewing

So to summarise, what does the opportunity mean to present films to an audience at short film festivals and events? It would be short-sighted to face this issue with sentimentality alone, regretting the decline in screening locations or discovering the fetishism of film in the art scene7, even if several filmmakers with their own promotion fantasies believe this will more or less save them, and in any case it has already been dealt with far more deeply elsewhere8.

However as long as the exposure at a festival film is limited to screenings alone, the film and filmmaker remain more non-present that present and quickly slip into oblivion.

So what approaches could be taken to resolve this? “PR for filmmakers” as the subject of a workshop which festival organisers are also allowed to attend, requests about event and marketing strategies, image transfer services of strategic concepts, gallery or agency work, discussions on interactive affirmative constraints not only in the press coverage, a radical reduction in the programme structures to half the normal programme lengths at short film festivals, film discussions prepared in advance and presented inside or outside the cinema, online video interviews with filmmakers as part of live broadcasts or on the cost-free iTunes channels – these are just a few of the known possibilities to support the conceptual direction of festivals. However prior to this the question arises, what it is all about.

To the extent that responses are lacking here, it remains open:

“¢ How high the chance really is that a film will gain attention by participating in a festival or one of its special programmes and in the festival press coverage?
“¢ How often is a film screened in which programme category, and which efficient opportunities are there to show and communicate the film more frequently and in pre-determinable contexts?
“¢ How to use the claimed direction of a festival (as an event, as content) exactly?
“¢ Which position does the festival generally have in the public eye, also concerning the separate events as well as the festival’s curated and special programmes?

1AG Kurzfilm – the German Short Film Association Short Film in Germany (ed.): Study on the Situation of German Short Film. Dresden 2006.
2ibid., p. 65.
3ibid. , p. 66.
4How to Brand IT? – An analysis of more than 50 Branding Campaigns, The Blue Series – G+J Electronic Media Sales GmbH, p. 9: “It is no secret that with just one contact […], regardless of how high the degree of attention it achieves, only a low advertising impact can be created.” From this it is obvious that there is also a qualitative difference between a one-off mass contact and repeated contact with a single person.
6AG Kurzfilm – the German Short Film Association Short Film in Germany (ed.): Study on the Situation of German Short Film. Dresden 2006, p. 65.
7Film Between Black Box and White Cube, Reinhard W. Wolf, 26th April 2002, in:
8The Long Tail. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream, in: Wired Magazine. 12, No. 10, New York.

Romeo Grünfelder is a filmmaker and artist. He lives and works in Hamburg and Berlin.

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