13 things that make a film festival successful

Setting up a film festival is big undertaking and when there are so many things that can go wrong how does one approach the huge task of making an event for filmmakers worthwhile? There are film festivals all over the world that cater to different genres of films but the ones that stand the test of time are those that have adapted certain models.

This weekend I attended the 9th European Independent Film Festival in Paris which has come a long way in the past few years to become hugely respected in Europe for discovering top indie film talent. It's a good case study for success, but you have to look no further than its President Scott Hillier, to understand what kind of commitment it takes to build such an event.

Below are some of the important elements that define the successful outcome of a film festival. In this case study I will look at what the ECU Film Festival has achieved and also highlight important areas that the big festivals such as Berlin, Cannes and Sundance have tackled.


At the heart of successful festivals is a defined leader, who has an absolutely clear objective in mind on what he/she wants the festival to do, and what that message has to tell to its audience. This leader must be able to transform ideas into action, and communicate effectively to all parties to make sure that all the important elements come together. The leader must also be aware of his/her strengths and weaknesses to delegate tasks properly to people who can do it better.


Film festivals face many behind-the-scenes challenges that make it even more difficult to guarantee a good outcome. The logistics of venue hiring, getting insurance, having an office for the team, hiring people, and getting support from the community are just a few of those elements that require a resilient individual to be able to get them in place. Having the stamina and the passion above all is what it will take to keep going during the good times and the bad.


Without a team a film festival can't succeed. This is the same for all businesses, large and small. Teamwork is one of those areas that are often difficult for people to get right because you need to have a focus, and those people also need to share a passion and desire for the festival's outcome. With a strong team, you get the benefit of skills in multiple areas that can cover areas from logistics to festival marketing. At the start, the money isn't there so reaching out to a passionate community is the next best thing.

One place to screen films

Film festivals need a hub and one place to screen all the major films in the selection. Cannes is a great example of this. All the official selection films are screened in one building. There are many festivals that rely on multiple venues for their selected films and this is a drawback because it separates audiences when they need to be in close proximity. It's the same principal for a party. Why have a party in 4 different venues across town when everyone can come together under one roof?

Film diversity

Films that have similar stories or average production values can undermine a festival's diversity and credibility. Getting a high standard of film submissions can really bring up the value of a festival, and the message it sends to its audience. One of the great things about the ECU Film Festival in particular is that it has managed to set a very high judging standard for its official selection, and that's what has helped bring its name to prominence. Great films from a diversity of backgrounds is important for a festival to stand out, especially in the first inaugural year.

Q and As

All good film festivals give their attendees a voice to debate films that are in the selection. Without this forum, film directors, producers and actors don't get the opportunity to connect with viewers and they are not being given the exposure that would bring even more value to them.

Positive message

Film festivals that do good, make a difference and send out a strong message stand out above the rest. Again this comes back to the founder of any festival. They must have this clear goal in mind to start with so that it can be translated into all mediums.

Strategic partnerships

Major festivals as well as indies need partners. No one can do it alone nor pretend to have everything. There is always a need for collaboration in the film industry as making films is a collaborative art (and showing them too). From non-profit organizations to universities, media brands and government, a combination of companies and people in all these areas is a must.

Strong jury

This might sound obvious but a jury that can transparently review and select films is one of those areas that are the most difficult to get right. For indie, niche festivals, having accomplished professional judges is important, as well as mainstream festivals. Recognized talent, and people who have excelled in filmmaking can make good judges, but finding them, and getting them together, is another big undertaking. With a strong jury a festival can make an even stronger judgement on talent and creativity. This is what will define the standard of excellence.

Great parties

Parties can augment the atmosphere and the fun at film festivals especially when they are well integrated into the schedule and allow attendees to mix. Finding a good format is the difficult part as there are costs and additional logistics associated with that component. A film festival that is memorable combines well structured parties, because let's face it, a celebration of filmmaking also needs to give people the opportunity to meet and have a laugh outside of screenings.

Excellent Organization

All major film festivals have extraordinary procedures put in place to coordinate efforts, departments and logistics. Having a strong organizational hierarchy from the word go is a must if the festival is to succeed. Failure in communication between staff, venues, sponsors and other areas will tear down the event before it even starts.

Consistent marketing

Marketing is a word many of us are allergic to. It's dirty, it's deceptive but it is totally necessary. Truly consistent marketing that promotes all aspects of the festival outside of its internal logistics is a must. There is no festival if there is no audience, and being able to convey the message of the festival to attendees is something that should start a year before the festival even begins. Marketing is also needed to attract support and potential sponsors and partners.


Having associations allows a film festival to establish relevance within the film industry. Without associations with other festivals, organizations or brands, the message is much weaker. Film festivals bring a lot of people together, and that has a big value to many organizations, whether commercial or non-profit. This part shows also the legitimacy of the festival, and what its ambitions are. It's a small thing with a huge psychological impact and it shouldn't be overlooked especially for the first event.

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