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How to Start a Film Festival: Start to Finish Brand Strategy

Starting a film festival isn't as hard as it may look or sound. It is, however, busy, and could be discouraging when you don't have the support you thought you'd have. It is similar to starting a new business venture, which many fail to start due to fear and lack of support. In this post, I will show you how we started the MidSouth Black Film Festival in Memphis, TN, and ended up with 300+ attendees in our inaugural year with only 6 months to prepare.

So a little back story about how I ended up being the Brand Manager for the festival, I started off as a freelance Digital Marketer and Brand Developer and I was also building my portfolio as an Actress and Model. Through personal marketing and mutual connections, the Founder of the film festival, Mr. William Edwards, sent me a friend request and then a DM a few months later. He asked me to be the Co-Founder of the festival and to help with marketing. This blog may contain affiliate links.

how to start a film festival brand development

Step 1: Put Your Business Plan on Paper

One of the first stages of starting a business or a brand is to write down your ideas. This is how you are able to develop a business plan from those ideas, plus, you don't want to lose your thought process. Mr. William and I spent countless hours on the phone typing and writing notes so that we had a proper business plan to execute. What are some things that should be in your business plan for a film festival?

What is your film festival mission?

They usually have the same mission--to help local filmmakers get exposure. But try to add something special that makes yours unique. The MidSouth Black Film Festival is a niche and was created to be a part of the Global Black Film Consortium, the parent company that provides additional resources for African-Americans in the film industry around the world.

Who is your team? Who will help you?

Where will you host your film festival?

When will you host it every year?

What kind of legal entity is your film festival?

Once you have these basic notes in your business plan, you can start working! Call your team and ask them for their expertise and commitment, review the event locations, call to get pricing and capacity information, and take note of your annual budget.

Step 2: Brand Design

Now that you have the important pieces in the works, it's time to work on your brand design. This is the second most important component, especially in the digital age. Businesses need a brand that their audience can resonate with and connect with. Your mission statement should help you identify who you serve in your community and use that information to form a brand for that person. Here are some brand design steps to take:

  • What colors should your brand have and does it look similar to another local business?

  • What logo ideas do you have in mind? Your brand designer should be able to help you create a logo that resonates with the film community.

  • Is your theme and brand voice fun? Professional? Witty? Your brand voice is communicated on your website and in your marketing.

  • Are you using stock images or should you get some photos done? You should use stock images to start and have a photographer come during the festival to get live images and videos to use for next year's marketing. Sign up for Canva Pro for thousands of film stock footage and graphics.

  • Find a web designer who can communicate your brand design and voice into the website and don't forget to purchase your website domain name.

  • Make sure your website has easy navigation and processes for people to buy tickets, subscribe to your newsletter, and please don't forget the mobile design! The majority of visitors will be visiting your site from their phones.

  • Implement SEO into your website from the beginning so that you are visible in search results. Some web designers don't do SEO, but we do for all of our sites.

Step 3: Volunteers, Vendors, and Vetted Filmmakers

While you are waiting on your brand to be launched, there are a few more people you will need to make your event successful. You already have your members who made a commitment to lead a successful festival each year, now you need volunteers. You need a handful of people who can staff your locations to help with event setup, breakdown, pay-at-the-door ticketing (if offered), checking digital tickets at the door, and helping with food (if offered).

You can ask extended family and friends if they'd like to get free entry by being a volunteer and make sure you keep a list of everyone who said yes because you may need to have a virtual meeting to make sure everyone knows their role and can show up on time.

Allowing local and small businesses to book vendor booths at your event is another way that you can earn additional revenue to offset costs. This is also a way to make your city smaller by bringing value to the community and businesses that need more exposure. We created a vendor application form on our website where we verified their business and collected payment if we accepted their products and services to be promoted at our festival.

A simple Facebook status on your personal profile can send vendor leads to your form from friends who own businesses and many will tag their friends. I always recommend new businesses start with the resources they already have like family, friends, and warm market leads.

Your warm market is also where you will find filmmakers who have films that need exposure. We reached out to people we already knew to ask them to submit their films to our festival. We also posted in local Facebook groups for actors and filmmakers to let them know that we were accepting submissions and would like to consider their work for accolades. Yes, we charged a fee for film submissions because it takes work to review each submission, download the files, and make them available for screening at the festival.

P.S. For the next film festival, you can consider using a volunteer application on your site to make connections with film departments at local colleges to send their students to help with your festival. Next year you should be doubling your attendance and income, and booking lasting connections in your city; a film-college connection is one of the best partnerships you can have.

Step 4: Build Brand Awareness

Once your site is ready to be seen, you should be building brand awareness and excitement! In Step 1, you should have an idea about who your ideal audience is, so now it's time to research where they are online. Where are they having conversations about the film industry? These are the platforms where you want to build profiles. You should also ask your web designer to create a landing page for email sign-ups so that your audience can stay updated on tickets, showtimes, and locations. Here's what we did:

  1. Started a Facebook Business page for Midsouth Black Film Festival and Global Black Film Consortium

  2. Uploaded the banner image (a stock image of the Mississippi Bridge that I customized inside Canva), used the logo for a profile picture, added the mission statement as the bio, and added contact info

  3. Posted and pinned our first status about the mission, dates, and link to join our email list.

  4. Invited our friends to follow the page. Within a week, both pages grew to 600+ likes and followers. The email list grew daily and up to 100+ sign-ups. (Collecting email addresses is like collecting credit cards, but we'll save that for another post) 😉

  5. We made more graphics as the agenda, workshops, and guest speakers were booked and we scheduled those to be posted in advance using the scheduler inside FB.

Create a Facebook Event

Once we had the schedule planned out, I created a Facebook event for additional organic exposure. When you create an event, Facebook will notify local profiles about "events happening near you" and they also let people know when their friends have RSVP'd to a local event to encourage them to do the same. This was another great way that we got more eyes on our inaugural festival and resulted in people checking in during the actual event which creates a status on the attendees' newsfeeds.

A Facebook event is also a great way for people to get notified about the approaching dates in case they aren't on your email list or if your statuses aren't seen in their feed. Make sure you add a good description, image, and links to purchase tickets. I also recommend posting festival updates in the event tab as well, because everyone who RSVP'd will get those notifications.

Build Brand Reputation with Press and Sponsorships

Public relations, media coverage, and sponsorships can really make a difference in whether your festival will survive in your city. Building a good brand reputation gives your festival credibility, revenue streams, and popularity. I didn't handle this side of the festival, the Founder took care of this, but I can tell you some pointers that helped him secure sponsors and media coverage.

  • Find out how to write a sponsorship proposal to email or mail to the businesses that you'd like to partner with. You can delegate this task to another team member.

  • You can Google search local businesses and brands that accept sponsor requests.

  • Know the amount of money you'd like to receive and what the business can get in return for their investment (ie., a vendor booth, a step-and-repeat backdrop, logo on the website, etc).

  • Let them know what you plan on using the funds for. Yes, it's for the festival but what part of the festival? Are they paying for a scholarship, awards, cash prizes, etc.

Media coverage can be easy to book for a local event. You are looking for a contact email, submission form, or phone number from your local organizations that cover events and news. Most of them will post for free, but for ad space online and in physical copies, and editorials, these can cost if they didn't reach out themselves. Here are some examples:

  • Popular blogs in your city that list events and happenings

  • The local newspaper or magazine and their online blogs

  • The locations where you booked the event can include dates and links in their newsletter and website calendars for their audience

  • Local colleges that have film departments and post calendar events online

  • Billboards if you can afford it. We had a billboard for our second year in 2021

As you can see, the most work is in marketing so that as many people in your city can know about your event. And it's also worth noting that a lot of this is free marketing for the first festival. We didn't get a billboard until the second year and that was because we knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who could get us a good rate 😁

Final Steps

The final steps are to make sure everything is ready to go. Your locations are paid, your volunteers know what to do, your payments are set up properly on your website and go to a designated business account, and your special guests and panelists know when to show up. Double-check that all of these steps are confirmed and in motion.

Now you are without excuse for not going forth to start that festival! If you think I've missed something or you have a question, please post your comments below and I will respond quickly. You can also set up a free consultation with me to discuss a specific step for your situation and how Element 11 Media can help you start strong. Keep in mind that I helped the MidSouth Black Film Festival launch each of these steps that resulted in 300+ attendees and 11 film awards out of 17 submitted films all while living away in Nashville. So I am available to help you no matter where you're launching!

Cheers to your success and happy filming!


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