How I Built a Distribution Plan at Film Festivals

By Lara Stolman

Didn’t get into Sundance, SXSW or Tribeca? Don’t give up. There are alternate paths to indie film success and ways to make festivals work for your film, even without a top tier premiere. I must admit, I’m a little anti-establishment, even for an indie filmmaker. I didn’t apply to Sundance. But nevertheless, my documentary Swim Team found success and distribution at film festivals.

Here’s how to make festivals the launching pad for your film:

1. Attend festivals early – before you’re ready to submit.

While in production, I went to Sundance, purely to network. Not only did I get to see some great films but I was able to connect with experts and learn about how to approach my film’s future, especially from distribution consultant Peter Broderick. Working with Peter, I decided on a hybrid strategy to partner with distributors and retain theatrical and semi-theatrical rights so I could screen my film in theaters, schools, non-profits and corporations and be paid for it indefinitely.


2. Target festivals that will best showcase your film.

Like many filmmakers I wanted my film to reach a wide audience and I had my heart set on PBS. I also wanted the film to be used as an outreach tool, so I planned for community screenings to be a significant part of my distribution plan. I soon learned that the most selective festivals were not necessary to achieve these goals.

DOC NYC became an important festival for us. Our local story shined at the New York premiere where we sold out our screening and impressed influencers. We were able to build momentum there with key non-profit organizations, the Aetna Foundation and Easterseals. Both would help fund our theatrical release and jump start a robust screening campaign that would bring the film to over 200 communities and counting.


3. Don’t pay to play festivals – get paid instead.

Festivals can be costly to apply to and to attend. I knew I’d have to spend some of my distribution budget on festivals but needed to be careful about how much.

So I emailed festival directors directly, asking for entry fees to be waived. After we had won some awards and got some great press, I felt confident enough to ask for screening fees and travel stipends. Playing festivals shouldn’t be a financial burden and enough festivals do pay fees. Festivals became a meaningful income stream for us.

Lara Stolman’s Swim Team received a NYWIFT Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness Grant for its portrayal of high school swim team comprised of teens on the autism spectrum. ( Photo Credit: Nicole Chan)


4. Attend festivals with your film – it leads to other opportunities.

By attending festivals, I was able to see audiences get wrapped up in the drama of our film, cheering the team along, gasping at their disappointments and applauding their successes. I learned Swim Team played well on a big screen, there seemed to be people everywhere who connected with our inspiring story and I decided to try to raise the funds for a theatrical release.

I met and solidified relationships with funders at festivals. I ended up working with Jim Browne at Argot Pictures on a release that took us to over 25 cities and qualified us for the Oscars.

After our opening at IFC Center in New York, we were thrilled to hear from Robert De Niro, who saw the film there and was moved to reach out. He later introduced the film at a special screening, which ended up being one of the most memorable events in our film’s life.


5. Play festivals even after your film debuts on television.

It’s now over one year since Swim Team debuted on PBS’ POV (the film has also been on iTunes and Netflix.) But since the first broadcast, the film has screened at 14 new festivals (bringing our total festivals to over 50). A few months ago, we won our 14thaward in Milan and we still get invitations.

Attending festivals is probably the most fun thing you can do while working. I was honored at a wine tasting dinner at a stunning vineyard (Napa Valley Film Festival), given a personal tour of historic Winston-Salem by a local artist (Riverrun), won two awards in one night (Monmouth Film Festival) and enjoyed a master class with HBO legend Sheila Nevins (Berkshires International Film Festival).

I’ve connected with people who have proven to be pivotal in my film’s life as well as made great new friends at festivals. I’ve traveled to fascinating places from Montgomery, Alabama to Almaty, Kazakhstan. All along, my film is being exposed to new audiences. It all began and continues with film festivals.


Lara Stolman

Lara Stolman

View all posts by Lara Stolman

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