That said, I don’t think huge international film festivals are the best launching point for every film. I know several films that got lost in Sundance and had a hard time getting traction after that. Ultimately, I think having a festival that is really excited to show your film is important. You can be in the best festival in the world, but if they show your film at 10am in a remote location, no one is going to notice it. Most of us are thrilled to be included in a festival at all, but you can get a lot more out of the experience if you get in touch with the programmers and advocate for being in the festival’s competition line up, getting a good screening time and venue, being mentioned in their own press outreach, etc. On that note, festival programmers are generally more accessible than I tend to think. If you can connect with them at other festivals or film markets, it’s great to make an introduction.
Of course everything depends on your goals for the film. My last film, Good Fortune, was rejected by all of the premiere festivals in the US, but ultimately found really passionate audiences at Human Rights festivals around the world. Having that kind of energy around the film ultimately landed us a coveted slot on POV which lead to an Emmy Award and the attention of international organizations like the UN, USAID, and the World Bank.
MPI: For Akheem has also been featured in major news outlets, like the Hollywood Reporter, and in top ten lists for People magazine and Entertainment Weekly. IndieWire put For Akheem on its list of films that "helped to define documentary cinema in 2017.” Were you expecting the great press coverage? Did it come organically from festivals and so forth, or were you pitching stories yourself?
LVS: I really need to credit our phenomenal producers for all of the press. Through a lot of hustle they were able to bring on an incredible PR team (who’d just finished working on Moonlight) for a fraction of what they typically charge.
I’ve been really naive about getting press—I want to believe that if you make a great film it will garner attention organically, but I really underestimated the constant flood of content most reviewers are faced with, especially at festivals with hundreds of films or in theaters where you’re up against the latest Marvel movie. Having a strong advocate and building relationships with the relatively small cohort of journalists and critics that write about movies is just another one of those elements of filmmaking that has nothing to do with actual filmmaking. You have to wear so many hats to be an independent filmmaker.
MPI: Along those lines, how would you recommend others draw attention to their films?
LVS: If at all possible, try to bring on a press agent. People who do this professionally are always going to be better than those of us who spend all our time making films. I think this is especially important around your premiere, since a few good articles can really help build buzz and generate interest from other press outlets, audiences, distributors, etc.
Social media is a really important tool as well and another thing I’m not very good at. I’m jealous of filmmakers who have the foresight to work on building an audience before the film is finished. I’ve also been recognizing the value of doing things like Kickstarter, going to film markets, and applying for documentary grants—besides raising money, it helps get other people invested in the film and starts building a community to support it.
MPI: Is there anything you learned on this journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next project?
LVS: So many things, I wouldn't know where to start. It’s an evolving process for sure.
MPI: How has your Moving Picture Institute fellowship and participation in MPI programs like screenwriting workshops helped develop your career?
LVS: I really can’t imagine trying to make a film without a supportive community around me. Independent filmmaking can be so isolating and making a film is such a monumental task, that knowing that you’re connected to people who share your passion and want to see you succeed is really huge. Workshopping in particular is a huge part of the process for me. It’s really easy for me to lose perspective, sort of lose the forest for the trees, when I’m writing and editing, and getting fresh perspectives and feedback from people I respect is usually the main thing that helps me surge forward. I’m proud to have been part of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective for ten years now, which exists solely for those reasons, and I don’t think I would be making films without that community.
MPI: As you know, our mission is to promote freedom through film. How do you navigate telling authentic stories that deal with current events and big ideas?
LVS: I think the emphasis really has to be on good storytelling. I care deeply about social justice, and it’s been the mission behind just about all of the work I’ve done, but I see that as a backdrop or a frame for what I’m putting on screen. It would be daunting for me to take on a film that tries to lay out a comprehensive argument about education reform or criminal justice or immigration, and it would probably be equally as exhausting to watch if I tried.