Six things I learned from starting a film festival


Unlike other jobs, it’s kind of hard to stumble into founding a film festival, or directing one. It’s certainly not a job that I ever thought I would do. You could say it born from a lot of frustration. I’d been stuck at my crappy day job for years, while others had long since moved on or moved up. I was still struggling to make a living as a freelance writer and film critic. I’d become one of those people who looks at the photos of friends on Facebook, the ones where they talk about the good times they were having and their great careers, and wonder what I was doing wrong. I needed a change. Badly. I was tired of waiting. Waiting for a returned call, for a job to get back to me, for things to change. The real push came when I attended a discussion about women working in the film industry at the Chicago International Film Festival. It was led by a group of women with long resumes in the film industry, with the frustrations and struggles you’d expect. But it was the end of it that really got to me. They turned to the audience and basically asked, “What are you doing? What are you doing to help women? What are you doing to make things better?” Okay, maybe not in those exact words. But it stuck. And I remembered that a few other local film critics had just decided to put on a film festival dedicated to the horror genre. Well, if they could do it, why couldn’t I? And I would make it a film festival dedicated to showcasing women both on film and behind the camera. Thus, the Milwaukee Women’s Film Festival was born, and continued to grow  throughout eight months of painstaking work and a whole lot of trial and error. Here are a few things I learned.

1.Take stock of your support system.

How much time can you devote to your project? Will you also be working a full or part-time job? Can you still pay your bills if you lose it? Know how reliable all your sources of income are. How much will you be doing? Will you have a committee to help view the movies, send emails, and do research? You need at least one reliable person to listen to your rants, keep you sane, and help you with last-minute emergencies that will come up. Especially know who is up for volunteering at the actual event itself.

2.You can’t always fake it till you make it.

If you work in the arts, this is practically a necessity. But I found out the hard way that thinking it’s always a possibility is a mistake. One of the tasks I struggled with most was setting up sponsorship arrangements. What kind of rewards should I offer? And for what amounts? Getting all the little (and big) financial components in place took me the longest to learn, and I approached a few sponsors before I had everything fully fleshed out. Bad idea. Here is what it revealed: sponsors have experience and expectations. Nobody jokes about money in these circumstances. DO NOT approach potential sponsors before your needs are fully understood and laid out. If you try to get their support again, it will be an uphill battle.

3.Accept that you will deal with a lot of egos.

Sometimes you just have to roll with it, and sometimes you’ll have to burn a few bridges. A big project like this will invite some drama simply because it exists. Some people will question your credentials, equipment, experience, and more. Most of the time, you just have to roll with it. Remember, the filmmaking community is more interconnected than ever. But really tricky situations can arise when you inevitably seek out the aid of strangers. I found out that even people who seem like experienced professionals can reveal some very unexpected, unpleasant prejudices that they’ll be completely blind to. This is something that can’t just be solved by ignoring or blocking someone.  When I found myself in this situation, I gave myself time to calm down, grit my teeth, and rant a little to someone I knew could be trusted just to get it out of my system. Then I made a commitment to tread extremely carefully. Give them another chance, but don’t let yourself get drawn into arguments, negotiations, or justifications. State your intentions clearly, and if the person doesn’t comply, tell them you can’t work with them. Hopefully, this won’t be when the flames burn your relationship to ashes. Just remember, the other person set the fire. Don’t let yourself get scorched too.

4.Whenever you order something, ALWAYS imagine you’ll be the one using it.

I ordered a few ballots for my movies, and then realized I forgot to put the name of the movie and short on it. So I had to give people two ballots and ask them to write the name of the movie and short they were rating. Before you order anything that festival attendees will use, pretend you’re one of the attendees and are going to be be using it. It’s a good way to tell if there’s any details you’ve let slip by

5.Your first time will be the most difficult.

Lack of sleep can mean you forget to return an important email. Not knowing about all the little components can mean things will take a lot longer. For example, I didn’t know that Film Freeway could send out a specialized message to all filmmakers. Or that they could be notified the day their film was accepted, rather than the actual deadline. The result? I got a lot of emails at once, which was overwhelming. But even more overwhelming was the fact that I had to email each filmmaker to ask for the things I would need from all of them. This meant a lot of time-consuming busywork that could’ve been better spent on other things. It really is the smallest things that will make the most difference.

6.You will be shocked at the amount of people who are willing to help.

True, it didn’t happen the minute I started the festival. A lot of big projects are announced with great fanfare and never come to fruition. But when people saw that I was serious, help started to come from a surprising variety of sources. Journalists sought me out for interviews. Tech-savvy friends made flyers and gave me advice on my website. Some helped spread the word on social media. Others told me about organizations that would want to work with me. Still others volunteered throughout the festival itself. The guys from the horror film festival turned into an invaluable source of information. And when the festival did happen, it made it that much more fun. Plus, an indie film festival that didn’t have a single movie starring James Franco? Now that’s what I call an achievement.  

Andrea Thompson is a contributor for The Young Folks.