By Annie Bush
Big news! I’m going to Sundance with a short film I produced! How can I best take advantage of this festival opportunity?
I produced the short documentary film, DULCE, with Jungles in Paris and Conservation International. Our documentary short had been on the festival circuit for five months already and was available online through The NY Times, so I certainly didn’t think we would get invited to screen the film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019. Needless to say, getting in was fantastic news and not needing to find distribution at the festival was even better news and meant I got to really think about how I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity.
Back in December when I found out that the film was invited to screen at Sundance, I sent an email (kind of like the one above) to my producer mentors asking for advice about how to best take advantage of being at the festival. Almost all of my colleagues responded with questions such as, “Well, what are you trying to do as a producer?” or “What are your goals as a filmmaker?” Smart questions, but I realized the answer to these questions didn’t involve just me.
My creative (and life) partner, Russell O. Bush, and I have been making films together since 2012. When I first met Russell years earlier, he was getting his MFA and I was teaching Spanish to middle and high school students. I never planned on being a filmmaker, but watching Russell work to get his films made, I realized I had something really unique to offer the film industry. Juggling hundreds of students (and their parents) each week, year after year, turned out to be good training. I found I could easily see both the forest and the trees when approaching projects; I paid attention to detail without losing sight of the bigger picture. I loved making real human connections with artists and colleagues just like I would with my students. I eventually made the final leap into filmmaking in 2013 and since then, Russell and I have been full-time filmmakers.
Since DULCE screening at Sundance was more of a victory lap for the filmmaking team, it was an opportunity for Russell and I to strategize how to best take advantage of the festival outside of the film itself.
With seven weeks to the festival screening, Russell and I decided to get organized, brand ourselves as a team, and formally launch ourselves as a company named From The Woods, “a Brooklyn-based film production company producing original content to spark a more humane, aWoken, and unbound world.” We had it all figured out: We’d release our first From The Woods short documentary film, THE RAILROADER, which would premiere on National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase a few weeks before we arrived in Park City (Sounds like good timing, right?). We’d hit the icy streets and crowded parties with, “Hey, did you catch my film DULCE here at the fest?” Followed by, “Did you see our new film THE RAILROADER that got released on Nat Geo just this month?” and eventually, “Yeah, we’re turning THE RAILROADER into a series and looking for funding. Maybe you’re that funder? Perhaps you’re that company?” Boom, blam, wham!
Step One: Launch From The Woods, our years-in-the-making production company, a few weeks before we go to Sundance. Tasks involved:
- Design our company’s logo, brand, messaging, look and feel, etc.
- Design and build From The Woods’s website.
- Update Russell’s director of photography reel for the new website.
- Secure and then build out our social media channels.
- Write our company’s first “hello world!” intro email to our networks and social media postings.
- Update ALL online profiles (every social media, IMDB page, LinkedIN account) for both Russell and myself.
Step Two: Release From The Woods’ first project, THE RAILROADER, a week or two before Sundance. Tasks involved:
- Actually finish the film!
By the time we realized I was going to Sundance with DULCE, we had just picture locked THE RAILROADER and decided on releasing the film online with National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase. Music, color, sound design and mix, titles… it all still had to be done.
- Design and execute a grassroots marketing campaign to supplement Nat Geo’s efforts.
My first years as a film producer I was creating and managing dozens of crowdfunding campaigns, launching films on social media, and building audiences through online engagement. This taught me that no matter who distributes your film (feature, short, series, etc.), you will always need to supplement a distributor’s marketing efforts with your own grassroots campaign. “Oh great! Another hat we get to wear as producers. Yay!” We’re talking email marketing, collaborating with local and national relevant organizations, social media campaigns, guerilla PR, the works. We worked directly with Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS), the historic railroad we followed in THE RAILROADER, to maximize the online release. We didn’t want to just make a film and let it live out in the ether, we wanted to create a positive impact for the C&TS and that meant we had to roll up our sleeves a little.
Step Three: Prep for meetings.
- Come up with our conversational pitch about our new company i.e. who are we, what kind of work are we looking for, and what are we up to?
- Research and schedule meetings with attending granters, donors, producers, and other colleagues to talk about From The Woods’ projects in development, particularly, a series idea stemming from THE RAILROADER.
Step Four: Come home from Sundance best friends with Robert Redford, the phones ringing off the hook, and MILLIONS OF DOLLARS for future projects!
HERE’S WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED
Turns out juggling two films, a director of photography reel, and a company launch all at once (and trying to get it done in under seven weeks) required a little more time than I thought and included variables I may have overlooked:
- If you’re reading this post, you already know that filmmakers are constantly balancing their side hustles with their passion projects. Russell and I had needed more time to both freelance to fund our general overhead and also work on a new film and the company launch.
- During the holidays, the industry really does shut down – this is generally a good thing, I know. Moving the film along through post and prepping its release was tough with so many holidays back-to-back in December. I remember foolishly getting back to work first thing on December 26th thinking that others would be returning to the office, too. Hours into emailing it was clear that no one would look at these emails before New Years Day. Russell and I would jokingly say from time to time, “Come on, y’all. Get back to work already!”
- Finishing THE RAILROADER while freelancing took longer than we planned. Finishing Russell’s reel in between everything took longer than we planned. We barely finished them before the festival began.
All of our exciting moments ended up happening within THREE DAYS of each other.
Wednesday, January 23: We launched From The Woods and our new reel.
Thursday, January 24: We arrived in Park City on three hours of sleep.
Friday, January 25: We released THE RAILROADER on National Geographic Short Film Showcase and then hours later attended DULCE’s first Sundance screening. Two films. The same day.
We didn’t set up as many meetings we would have liked. We didn’t do all the research on attendees we had talked about. Once we were at the festival our energy was depleted, so it was incredibly challenging meeting new folks and talking about future projects without feeling a bit unprepared.
IF I HAD TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN
- I would have the same strategy going into Sundance: formally launch our company, release its first project, update our company reel, but…
- I would have set a more realistic timeline for everything we wanted to accomplish and been more flexible with our festival strategy.
- I would have insisted that preparing for our projects was just as important as the company launch tasks. For example, preparing a pitch deck for THE RAILROADER series was just as important as updating our director of photography reel.
- I would have initiated a soft launch of the company earlier on so that I could have reached out sooner to the folks I wanted to meet with at the festival.
- I would have set aside more time to do the research about attendees. We regretted not having more one-on-one meetings.
- I would have seen more films. If you’re at a film festival, see as many films as you can. It seems obvious, but it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in all the events, parties, and meetings and miss the whole reason you’re at a film festival in the first place.
THE GREAT FESTIVAL TRUTHS
- Go to the festival. Just go. And I don’t just mean the mega fests. Go to the regional festivals, the niche festivals, festivals with pitches, with markets, in small towns, in big cities. I was asked to make DULCE because Russell and I decided to attend a screening of our film VULTURES OF TIBET at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in 2015. I remember we went back and forth about attending, but ultimately, we went. Russell met Darrell Hartman of Jungles in Paris and the two of them ended up hitting it off and then two years later, Darrell called me up about producing DULCE. See?
- Figure out what you’re looking for right now as a filmmaker and what you expect you’ll need a little further down the road. What is it that you want from the festival experience? Then make a plan to get what you want. This is your festival strategy.
- Do your research about who’s there. Learn the program, the panels, the special events. Identify the festival sponsors. Scroll through your contacts to see who can get you an invite to a private party you’d like to attend.
- “Results” from attending a festival come from cultivation; building a relationship with someone. You can’t expect to hand your card out and get a film deal the next day.
- Important moments can happen anywhere. While crossing the street you might recognize a fellow crew member you once worked with or while waiting for your Uber you might get to chat with a festival programmer. The best festival moments happen in the most unexpected places.
- Have fun. Don’t be afraid to actually celebrate the fact that being at a festival is a privileged and awesome experience! It’s easy to forget how lucky we are as filmmakers and how special a life we get to live.
Upon returning home from the festival, I asked myself, “Did I end up wasting an opportunity by doing too many things at once?” But then I remembered something important. I remembered that there isn’t just one way to fest and you need to manage your expectations. There isn’t one way to take advantage of having a film at Sundance (or SXSW, Tribeca, TIFF, etc.). And most importantly, having a film at a festival isn’t the end-all-be-all. Festivals are places of artistic energy and love, and screening your film at one can be the start of something big, something beautiful, but it may take time to grow. The worst thing you can do is not plant any seeds at all.
As filmmakers, we have to come up with impossible ideas and try and to make them happen. That’s what this industry keeps teaching me. And there is something incredibly motivating about a major film festival that you cannot ignore. Sundance lit a fire underneath Russell and I. It forced us to get creative, get smart, and come up with a strategy. Would we have set these important, much needed goals for ourselves back in December if Sundance didn’t surprise us and present itself as an opportunity?
I’m proud that we came up with a really ambitious strategy to make the most of our festival experience. It really was time to finally launch that company we’ve been talking about for years and it was the perfect time to release our first official project, oh and it really was time for that director of photography reel we’ve been meaning to update to get updated. It felt (and still feels) awesome that we took a chance at braving Ambitious.
My story is a reminder that there are a lot of expectations about what it means to get a film (even a short film) into Sundance. You still have bills to pay, you still have overhead to pay and things cost money, oh and sometimes work can be slow. Are we nuts for being filmmakers? What kind of sustainability is this? Well, I’ll put it like this: Filmmaking is a series of “plant seeds, harvest crops, plant seeds, harvest crops” moments. You can’t expect immediate success. One film might propel you a little forward, but you have to expect tangible returns to take time. We’re not planting magical Jack and the Beanstalk beans, ya know?
So, hopefully this ambitious strategy of ours planted a ton of seeds for us. Now grow, little babies. Grow.
Annie Bush is a film producer based in Brooklyn, NY. Projects she’s produced have played at the Sundance, Toronto International Film Festival, IDFA, Berlinale, SXSW, AFI Docs, Camden International Film Festival and more. Annie most recently produced the Oscar qualifying documentary short, DULCE, which was released by New York Times OpDocs in 2018. Annie is best known for her work as a Producer of Distribution and Marketing and helping raise nearly $1.6 million in crowdfunding for dozens of film projects. She is Co-Founder of From The Woods, a Brooklyn-based film production company producing original content, Co-Founder of OUTsider Festival, Austin’s queer multi-arts festival and academic conference, and a member-owner of New Day Films, the longest running distribution cooperative for independent documentary filmmakers. If Annie’s not dancing or singing karaoke, she’s telling stories about what it was like growing up with six brothers and sisters.