Film Festival Tips for New Filmmakers

If you love filmmaking, overdosing on popcorn, and waiting in line ups, then you’ve probably seen a film at a film festival before. Festivals have a certain exciting frequency to them as audience members, celebrities and filmmakers all enjoy the same viewing screen. But for a new filmmaker, festivals can be daunting new territory.

InFocus alumni Sarah Race’s student film, Barbarian Press (2016), has been screened at a dozen festivals around North America. Race felt clueless when she entered the festival world—but even though she spent more money on festivals than on the cost of her film, it was all worth it. “To me, it was all about the experience, about all the amazing people I met, how awesome people were, and all the learning curves,” said Race.

Race was encouraged to submit Barbarian Press (2016) by her InFocus instructors, and her film won official selection at Hot Docs in 2016. The decision to take the festival route has been very beneficial for her networking but has limited the potential audience for her film, as opposed to if she had posted her films on an online platform like Youtube. “Film festivals only have a very small audience of a specific sort of people that go to film festivals,” she said.

One of the biggest factors discouraging filmmakers from entering festivals is the cost. It can be expensive to pay for application fees, and then transportation and lodging in the city of the festival. Race said it was expensive but still important to attend the festivals for networking purposes. “You’re there to network and meet people, and maybe eventually those things will pan out to money making.”

Janalee Budge, another InFocus alumni, also took to the festival scene with her documentary In the Blink of an Eye (2016). She has received multiple awards and screenings, including official selection at the Whistler International Film Festival. She said the festival application process was overwhelming and expensive, but she feels that the ‘award winning’ title has its benefits. “To be able to say that [my film has] gone to a festival seems to have a fair bit of weight when you’re talking to people about future hiring,” said Budge.

Budge entered her film into festivals mostly out of curiosity. “I wanted to know if it was going to be interesting to people that weren’t my friends and family,” said Budge. Once the festival began, she was hooked. “I loved going to all the events and for the first time being part of the industry side as opposed to just the filmgoers,” she said.

Aside from the red carpets and events, festivals can be a very busy time for filmmakers. According to Sarah Race, “You have to do a lot of work when you’re there, like bring postcards or just talk to people.”

Of course, choosing to submit your film into festivals all starts with the daunting task of the application process. It can be overwhelming to sift through hundreds of festivals online, each application with its own expensive entry fee and specific requirements. Setting a budget for your festival applications and applying only to the most relevant festivals to your film is recommended. Race suggests focusing submissions on festivals that have a similar theme to your film, such as festivals that are focused on mountain films or skiing if that’s the topic of your film. She also says to be wary of premiere requirements, as some festivals require a film to be a world, national or provincial premiere and your film only gets one of each.

Not every film is destined or designed to go into the realm of film festivals, but those that do successfully find themselves as an Official Selection at a festival can look forward to the title of award-winning filmmaker and proudly display their laurels.

Shooting Without a Script: Improvised Cinema

Drinking Buddies (2014), an improvised movie

No matter how much care a screenwriter may put into their script, it only takes one rogue actor with a penchant to ad-lib to completely derail their meticulously written dialogue. There are a number of infamous scenes that have come from this process. Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes is in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), when a swordsman, theatrically brandishing a sword, confronts a weary Harrison Ford, who had been recovering from a bout of dysentery on set. With the expectation that an elaborate fight would follow, audiences were surprised and delighted when Ford simply pulled out his gun and blasted his foe away. This improvised moment resonated with fans because it felt fresh and unpredictable in an otherwise polished film.

But what would an entirely improvised film look like?

In the last several years, there have been a number of celebrated films that were shot with only a script outline, giving the actors freedom to explore their characters in an organic way. Mark and Jay Duplass have used this method for many of their films, ushering in what is known as the Mumblecore Movement with their feature-length debut The Puffy Chair (2005). Eleven years later, their experience in this narrative execution culminated in the critically acclaimed improvised film Blue Jay (2016),

The list of directors who work within this world of improv goes on: Joe Swanberg with Drinking Buddies (2014) and the Netflix series Easy (2016), Lynn Shelton with Humpday (2009) and Your Sister’s Sister (2011), and Ben and Joshua Safdie with Daddy Longlegs (2009) and Heaven Knows What (2014), among a host of other directorial talent.

So, what drives a director to want to create an unscripted film? The budget and condensed timeline can be equally enticing draws for the independent filmmaker. The majority of unscripted films are made on micro-budgets, often within a matter of weeks. Another factor is having a story outline that is driven by strong characters and naturalism, where dialogue may feel more authentic if improvised.

If this process intrigues you, here are a few pointers on making your own unscripted film:


  1. Start With a Strong Outline

Identify what your film is about, who the characters are, and what is at stake for them. Outline each scene with the location, cast, and ultimate purpose. Each major cast member should have a written backstory to help guide and justify their actions. The more preparation you do ahead of time, the more freedom the actors will have on the day of the shoot.


  1. Find Your Collaborators

Even more so than traditional filmmaking, improv cinema is an intensely collaborative process, and it takes a flexible and open-minded person to truly excel at it. Recruit your cast and crew with that in mind.


  1. Schedule Time for Rehearsal

A strong actor isn’t necessarily a gifted improviser, and it’s important to leave time for your cast members to develop trust and a sense of familiarity with one another before you go to camera. Consider having your actors improv scenes that won’t appear in your film but are significant parts of their back story. A scene that explores where the characters first met, or shared a secret, or had their first big fight will contribute to the depth of their performance during the actual shoot.


  1. Have a Multi-cam Setup

One of the greatest assets of improvisational cinema is also its greatest challenge: every take is going to be different. Shoot with a minimum of two cameras to ensure you get enough coverage and options for editing.


  1. Get Creative with Financing

Fundraising for an improvised film can be tricky. In Canada, most funding sources require an extensive outline of the project, including a completed screenplay. The bulk of unscripted films are made with minimal budgets, a reality that has filmmakers cutting corners and utilizing unconventional practices during their shoots. Brian McGuire shot his feature Prevertere (2013) by dollying his cinematographer through downtown in a wheelchair to avoid purchasing a filming permit and by posing as a wedding videographer to capture a cinematic scene.


Unscripted filmmaking takes a fearless director and a cast and crew who are willing to break the mold to create their next big project. Do you have a favourite improvised film? Let us know in the comments!

Women in Film: Where They Are and How Far They’ve Come

InFocus celebrates Women in Film

by Renee Sutton

International Women’s Day is a global celebration of the social, cultural, and economic achievements of women around the world, and an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on some of the most badass women in film, both in history and today.

The role of women in the film industry has changed dramatically since the early days of Hollywood, when most women on set were on-screen bombshells or at least deemed marketable by the big studios. While film is statistically still a male-dominated industry, more and more women are moving into key creative positions and making highly acclaimed and celebrated films in both the independent and studio world.

Despite the adversity, there have always been women who persevered and shone in the film industry. Even during the early decades of Hollywood’s first century, there was Dorothy Arzner, the only working female director in America in the late 20’s and 30’s. She made 3 silent movies and 14 ‘talkies’ during her 15-year career as a director, and was the first female member of the Directors Guild of America.

The modern film industry has many more women working behind the scenes, but still at a ratio of five men to every one woman, according to the New York Film Academy. In the entire 89-year history of the Academy Awards, only four women have been nominated for Best Director; Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1975) in 1976, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation in 2003, and Kathryn Bigelow who was the first and only woman to win Best Director for The Hurt Locker in 2008.

Originally from California, Kathryn Bigelow began her creative career as an accomplished painter before studying film theory. She started by making short films, and had early success directing features with Point Break in 1991 and, more recently, the acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty in 2012. Bigelow was the first woman to win a BAFTA award for Best Director and to win the Directors Guild of America award for directing a feature.

While less than 30 percent of all key creative positions (directors, writers, producers cinematographers, and editors) are held by women today, according to a 2013 study by Sundance Institute and Women in Film, the number of female documentary directors and producers is drastically higher now than it was in the past. Women are much more prominent in the production of documentaries than in that of narrative films. Women make up nearly 50% of documentary directors and producers but less than a quarter of narrative feature producers and directors.

Even though their numbers comprise a lower percentage of filmmakers in the industry, female filmmakers are constantly breaking new ground. American director, screenwriter and distributer Ava DuVernay began working in film publicity to market movies to African American audiences in the 90’s. The documentary This is the Life (2008) was her directorial debut. Her second narrative film, Middle of Nowhere (2012), won DuVernay the Best Director Award in 2012, making her the first female African American to receive this award. In 2014, she was also the first female black director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her film Selma (2014).

Looking a little closer to home, Canada also has many inspiring and successful female directors. Alanis Obomsawin has been directing films since 1971 and has nearly 50 directing credits with the NFB. While originally born in New Hampshire on Abenaki Territory, Obomsawin was primarily raised in Quebec. Before her film career, she toured as a singer/song writer and activist, eventually moving on to make films that address the struggles and perspectives of aboriginal peoples living in Canada, including 270 Years of Resistance, her best-known film from 1993.

Canadian actress Sarah Polly also shifted into directing films and is leading a very successful career as a director. Her 2006 feature film debut, Away from Her, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and won multiple Genie awards, including the first female to receive the best achievement in direction award. Her films Take This Waltz (2011) and Stories We Tell (2012) were both named one of Canada’s top ten features of the year by the Toronto International Film Festival.

Vancouver-based Julia Ivanova is a passionate director, editor and cinematographer committed to making documentaries that break individual and social perceptions. She has directed and edited multiple full-length feature documentaries, including Family Portrait in Black and White, which won best Canadian feature at Hot Docs in 2011, and Limit is the Sky (2016), which premiered at the Calgary International Film Festival 2016 and will be screening in Vancouver at DOXA this year.

You can celebrate women in film at the 2017 Vancouver International Women in Film festival from March 8-12 at the VIFF Vancity Theatre, or you can check out any of the films on this IMDB list of 200 films directed by a woman.


Renee is a Vancouver-based freelance videographer and editor.  Since graduating from InFocus Film School, Renee spends most of her time editing video projects and creating social content for online platforms, but she also enjoys creating environmentally-aware short documentaries and travel videos.