AVRIL SPEAKS: The Anxiety of Launching a Film – SXSW Style

Avril Speaks is the producer of JINN, which recently had its world premiere at SXSW 2018 in Narrative Competition and won Special Jury Recognition for Writing. We asked Avril to candidly share her experience of what it was like going into her first major festival premiere, what she knows now that she didn’t know then, and the many anxieties she hopes to avoid on the next film.

Avril SpeaksI’ll never forget the day we received the infamous email from Janet Pierson, Director of SXSW Film, letting us know that JINN was accepted into SXSW Film festival. After receiving our share of festival rejections that month, my director, Nijla Mu’min, and I were relieved to discover that our time of blood, sweat and tears had finally evolved into tears of joy and celebration.

Premiering at a major festival for the first time is an exhilarating feeling for any filmmaker, but as the producer of JINN, the party was short-lived once I realized all the work that went into preparing for such premiere. Don’t get me wrong, it was all worth it in the end, and I enjoyed every minute of it, but I definitely learned some valuable lessons that I will carry with me on future projects. Below are my top five lessons learned in the art of launching a film – SXSW style.

1. The Announcement – Everything changed once the announcement went out about the official selections for SXSW 2018. I was in the middle of production for another project and I wasn’t prepared for all the celebratory phone calls, emails, and tweets from friends, family, cast, and crew, but it was an exhilarating experience to share that joy together nonetheless. The announcement also sparked a flood of emails from sales agents, publicists, distributors, marketers, and aggregators who were all inquiring about doing business with us. In the midst of all of this, we were also getting important emails from the festival with instructions for navigating the festival in the months ahead. It was overwhelming and exciting at the same time. The lesson learned? Keep up. As we would soon discover, the future of our film could depend on how we handled those initial moments.  

2. Choosing a Sales Agent – We knew early on that we wanted to attach a sales agent to our film prior to the premiere. We had heard from other producers that SXSW is a strong showcase festival, but that sales can be slow since it doesn’t have a market, so we felt that having representation would be crucial for us. Since we were participants in the IFP Narrative Completion Lab and IFP Week, we had already made some relationships with sales agents who were initially interested in repping our movie. However, once the official SXSW announcement was made and it was revealed that our film would be in the competition section, we became inundated with emails from reps – some of which we already made contact with, some of which had already passed on the project and suddenly decided that they were interested again, and some of which we had never heard of before.

In the months leading up to the festival, we had seemingly endless meetings with sales agents in an effort to find the right partner for our film. In order to help us make a decision, we took extensive notes during each meeting, and asked for advice from mentors, as well as getting recommendations from people who had worked with each agency in the past. Through participating in programs such as  IFP and the Film Independent Producing Lab, we knew how important it was to define our goals for the film early on, so we went into those meetings with an idea in our head about what we were looking for in a sales agent. Liking the film was not enough. Could they see this as a coming-of-age story and not try to turn it into a political stance because of it’s Muslim themes? Did they understand the message of the film and could they talk about it in a way that would communicate that message clearly? These were important questions for us, but we also learned that it’s equally important to choose a sales agent that can align with your future goals, not just for the film, but personally and professionally. We met with several great sales agents and each of them had different strengths that would add value to our project, but knowing our goals helped us stay focused.

Whether the goal is to gain notoriety, or to acquire an agent, to spark community engagement and dialogue, or to set up the next project, I’ve come to learn how important it is to be honest with yourself about what you want in the end. All of these things were important to us, so we were sure to listen carefully to how each potential agent answered our questions. I would be lying if I said we felt 100% confident in our decision the entire time. But one of my biggest takeaways from this part of the process was to trust my gut. Do your due diligence and homework, but at the end of the day, only you and your core team fully know the end goal. Trust that and let it guide you toward making a decision you feel proud of and it’ll be worth it.

We ended up signing with UTA because they were only repping a small number of films at SXSW and we felt that our film could benefit from having the muscle of a larger agency behind it. We asked advice from some of our mentors as well as two of our EPs, Tommy Oliver and Billy Mulligan, and they all had positive experiences working with the agency in the past. In addition, we felt that it would be a good idea to work with and develop a relationship with an agency that could possibly help us procure talent and other resources for some of our future projects.

3. Publicity – One of the main things that made me anxious leading up to the premiere was publicity. I had spoken to several producers months before the announcement to get a sense of what to expect and I never could get a clear answer on how much a publicist would cost and everyone seemed to have doubts about whether or not hiring one was worth the price. Based on our desire for reviews and write-ups, we knew a publicist would be necessary during the actual festival, but I didn’t realize just how crucial a publicist would be even in the days leading up to the premiere. We received an email from SXSW almost every week. Whether it was letting us know what stills we needed to send, or gathering information about the main points of contact, we were constantly trying to keep track of all the requests and deadlines, which proved to be a task in and of itself. We started a Google drive with our still images that had been color corrected so that whenever someone asked for photos, we had them ready to go. We also made a list of publications where we were interested in covering the film, some of which had already begun contacting us to schedule interviews.

As the requests grew, we realized that we needed to hire a publicist sooner than later. In the midst of interviewing sales agents, we also scheduled several calls with publicists in order to figure out who would be the best fit. We decided to hire Rachel Aberly from 42 West for our publicity because we felt it would be a good strategy to pair their expertise with an agency like UTA, who would be selling our film. She immediately began handling all of our interview requests and her team sent us frequent press breaks so that we could stay in the know about what was being said in the world about our film. Leading up to the festival, our publicist secured interviews with major publications such as the LA Times, as well as niche outlets who were able to do more in-depth analysis of the film ahead of the premiere. During the festival, not only were we able to get some positive reviews, but our publicist also handled the logistics for our premiere day, making sure that we had a full schedule of interviews, photo shoots, and panels and throughout the day, making sure that our director and cast had transportation to each of these events, and also making sure that everyone knew where they were going. In retrospect, for me, having a good publicist was well worth the investment

4. Navigating the Festival – The logistics of navigating the festival itself was yet another big concern for me as a producer. How would we get everyone to Austin? Would we have enough tickets for everyone? How would we get an audience for all three of our screenings? Would we finish the film in time? Would we have enough money to cover it all? These questions kept me up at night and ultimately I had to learn to trust the process, as well as trust the numerous mentors that came across my path. Fortunately, we did finish the film in time and despite the unexpected costs associated with DCP creation, shipping, and printing multiple versions of our marketing materials, we still had enough money to (barely) cover everything. All of our lead cast was able to attend the premiere, which was a big advantage because as I learned, more press is generated when your cast is available to participate, which in turn creates more buzz for the film.

Regarding tickets, the festival provided us with an adequate amount to each screening. We kept a running list of who was attending the screenings and how many tickets we had. We ended up purchasing additional tickets to ensure that distributors and other influencers would have seats. One takeaway from our screenings was to keep track of reserved tickets and to communicate with the theater manager prior to screening. We oversold during our second screening, a good problem to have, but it meant that even some of our reserved ticket-holders didn’t have seats. For our premiere, our publicist put together a schedule for the day that our team and cast were privy to, but that schedule conflicted with our theater manager’s schedule and we weren’t able to get all the red carpet photos we wanted and had to rush some of our actors in and out of the theater, which was not ideal. Fortunately, everyone on our team was understanding.  

Some distributors rely on reviews in order to make decisions about what films they will buy, so if you plan to sell your film, it’s important to stay ahead of the reviews that are released during the course of the festival and have your sales agent share them with with potential buyers. Given the lack of diversity among film critics at some of the major publications, it is sometimes hard to find reviewers who understand the cultural nuance that comes with telling stories about people of color. We learned that it doesn’t hurt to seek out reviewers who can be sensitive to that perspective, rather than waiting for the film to be assigned to any random writer on staff.

Another aspect that proved to be an asset in navigating the festival was having an impact producer, someone who can engage organizations to rally around a film in order to inspire activism and social awareness. Our amazing Impact Producer, Maria Judice, came onboard before the festival and did outreach to groups such as Film Fatales Austin and the Women’s Community Center Austin. She also helped manage our social media presence while we were at the festival. This proved to be very helpful in terms of connecting with our target audiences of black women Muslims and teenagers. Both Nijla and I were on various panels during the festival, and Maria was instrumental in helping us promote those panels on social media so that we could cross-promote the them with our film screenings via our film Facebook page.    

5. The Age-Old Question, “So What’s Next?”  Someone once told me that film festivals are never about your current project, they’re about setting you up for your next project. That advice proved to be true as our SXSW experience helped open the door for other possible opportunities. Nijla won Special Jury Recognition for Writing, which triggered more press for the film and we were able to take a few meetings with distributors, production companies, and financiers during the festival who all wanted to know what our next project would be. Fortunately, Nijla and I have already started developing a new project together so we had something in the works to present,. The lesson learned? Never go to a film festival with just that one film. In our case, we walked away with contacts not just for promoting JINN, but for other work to come.

It was quite a challenge for us to truly let loose and relax during the festival because we always had such a tight schedule in promoting our film, but overall, we had a very positive festival premiere. So far, we have had a good experience with our sales agent, and I think that the partnership between UTA and 42 West proved to be one that worked well for our film.

Since returning from SXSW, our sales agent has been in ongoing talks with various distributors about acquiring the film. It has been a month and a half of several disappointments, as some of the companies we assumed would be a great fit for our film, ended up passing on the project. For an indie film like ours, we are in a tough position because we often hear from companies that they love our film, but it feels too small for them to spend the money releasing it. Although it was hard to stay positive at times, we continued to believe that we would one day find the distributor that believes in the film and feels it is worth the risk. We believe we found that distributor, and are now in the final stages of signing a deal and getting final word about a release (hopefully) later this year. Since UTA is only handling our domestic sales, we are also in the final stages of securing an international sales agent who can help us bring the film to markets around the world. I’m looking forward to the next film launch and now that I have a better idea of what to expect, hopefully there will be less anxiety and more time for continued celebration.

Seeing a need for a broader selection of quality films, Avril Speaks goal is to diversify the film market by creating unique films, and by educating and empowering aspiring filmmakers; thereby creating a movement consisting of media that represents the true, multi-dimensional qualities of people and speaks to the world. Committed to themes that center around family, community, social justice, and spirituality, Avril continues to work on interesting projects within film and television. She was an Associate Producer on the TNT docu-series AMERICAN RACE, and became the lead producer on the feature film JINN, which garnered financial support and mentorship from various film organizations, including  the Sundance Institute, IFP, Film Independent, Women in Film, and the San Francisco Film Society. She is currently one of the producers for the upcoming feature film, HOSEA, while preparing to produce the IFP-supported South African feature film, AFRICAN AMERICA, as well as the film CAROLINE’S WEDDING, based on the short story by Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. Avril is a Film Independent Producing Lab Fellow for the project NOOR, and she most recently worked as a production manager for Scripted Programming at BET Networks.She earned her M.F.A. in Film Directing from Columbia University School of the Arts in New York City and has directed two feature films prior to moving to Los Angeles to focus primarily on producing and directing. For more information, visit http://www.azuspeak.com.