The Five Golden Rules of Film Festival Survival

One the eve of Cannes, I found some time to reflect on the survival skills you need when you visit film festivals. After more than ten years of regularly attending them, here are my Golden Rules. What are yours?

Palm Springs 2007. Picture only for illustration, as this was the last night, not the first.


Rule #1: Don’t Over-Do It The First Night.

You fly in on an invitation to attend a festival screening your film, and usually there will be some kind of opening party, or just ample opportunities in general to get wasted and stay up late. Either along with other filmmakers, the festival organizers, members of the audience or with someone from your cast or crew who came along or a combination of all four. No rule without an exception though: If you plan to only stay a couple of days, then you can safely Over-Do It by holding on to the idea of sleeping it off on the plane ride home.

But if you plan to spend several days to hang out during the festival, it can be a good thing to not burn the candle at both ends from the get-go. Especially if you’re not one of those professional festival travelers who spend more days on the road than at home. We’re talking about a certain breed of film journalists, sales agents and festival programmers. They have an extra reservoir of mystical stamina that you, the lowly and only occasional festival traveler, can’t hope to match. I find that going to bed relatively early on the first night of a festival pays dividends in the following days. You’ll have more energy for seeing movies, getting to know other guests and audience members etc. This is especially true in Cannes, which is a 9 to 5 festival meaning of course 9 am to 5 am…

(You’re free to call me an old fart in the comments section below.)

Guatemala City 2007. Local delicacy: Pollo Campero!


Rule #2: Eat When You Get A Chance.

Although this can seem very obvious, it’s easy to forget. Festival days can become quite a blur, with a mix of screenings and other happenings that more often than not ruin your daily habits. So whenever you see a piece of food pass by, try to eat it. You never know when your next chance at sustenance will come. It ‘s advisable to ask the owner first though, and perhaps offer to buy it. Note that during most festivals, your diet will consist of irregular helpings of tiny and often poor excuses for food (“finger food”, “snacks”). And beer. Or wine. Or both.

If you’re able to set aside time to actually eat something worthwhile, it always helps to go with locals. Chances are you’re in a strange city in a strange country where you’re not equipped to make anything but snap decisions on where to go. Many festivals also take place in touristy areas, so it’s not uncommon to get caught up in some expensive and mediocre establishment.

Cannes 2010. Footwear on the left not recommended. Footwear on the right always recommended.


Rule #3: Use Only The Finest Quality Footwear.

I debated with myself to put this rule in the top spot, as it can’t be stressed enough. Invariably, film festivals involve a lot of walking between venues and/or standing in line for screenings etc. Furthermore, you’ll probably not be able to change shoes (or clothes) during the whole day. So do a little research on the climate of where you’re going, and invest in some quality footwear that fits the season. It will have to be the kind that breathes, too. Warning: flip flops (with or without socks) may be culturally inappropriate!

Cannes 2007. The legendary after hours bar Le Petit Majestique (beware of pick pockets!)


Rule #4: No Meetings Before Noon If You Can Help It.

This rule applies to festivals you attend to do business, and if you’re older than 30 years of age. Speaking for myself at the tender age of 36, I simply can’t stay up til until 4 or 5 in the morning having fun and then be up and about again at 9 in the morning to close a deal or follow up that important distributor. So in order to have my cake and eat it too, I never book meetings before noon during festival days. Everybody wins. Not least the people I’m meeting, who I’ve spared of having to endure my sleep-deprived stuttering, cold sweats, shivers and bleary eyes.

However, that special breed of hard-as-nails festival goers mentioned in Rule #1 are exempt from Rule #4. Sales agents, for example. I can’t fathom how they do it. They’re always the last people to leave the party, and the first people to be up – reading the trades, doing last-minute adjustments to their schedule of meetings and screenings …and having meetings. They must sleep a fortnight after returning from a major festival or market. Or they are on horrible drugs. Or both.

Cannes (not sure which year): This guy dressed up to market his short film. Quite effective, but I can't remember his name.


Rule #5: The Other Guy Doesn’t Remember Your Name Either, And It’s Okay.

Attending festivals are worthwhile not least for the chance to meet loads of new, cool people. If you’re a recluse filmmaker, the kind who mutters under his or her breath on the bus that nobody understands your art, or if you have problems with crowds (say in a movie theater) – then simply don’t go. Stay at home.

But for the rest of you, here’s the advice. During the course of say a week of attending a major festival like Cannes or Berlin, you’re bound to literally meet dozens if not hundreds of people. And following the notion that festivals, with their compressed, hyperactive version of life, can become quite a blur – it’s OK if someone’s name slips, or if you can’t for the life of you remember where you last met the person you’ve been chatting along with for the whole evening. It happens to the other guy too. So don’t sweat it.

Needless to say, if you’re the type of person that has an elephantine memory of faces, places and names – you’ll probably make it big in the festival world, as you deftly navigate the various parties and occasions – safe in the knowledge that you won’t talk crap about the hosts within earshot of them. Like everyone else does.


Rule #6: Smile When Receiving The Award Which Is A Horrible Sculpture By A Local Artist.

This is true for every festival in the known universe.

Rule #7: It’s OK To Sleep During A Screening As Long As You Don’t Snore.

For many festival attendees, screenings are their only chance to get some shut-eye. Do not disturb.

Rule #8: There’s No Accounting For The Taste Of The Jury. It’s All Politics. Deal With It.

No reason to shed any tears when you lost out. It’s not about you, your film, or the other films.

Rule #9: Never, Ever Attend A Market Or Press Screening Of Your Film.

This is especially true for directors, who will be mortified. Film industry types will be texting, taking calls and leaving after only a few minutes.

Rule #10: Read Up On Where You’re Going.

Just like it is with vacations, I invariably find that festival trips become a lot more enjoyable if I know a little about the place I’m visiting. Check out some Wikipedia articles, TripAdvisor, anything. And see if you can’t set aside some time off to explore between screenings and parties (yeah, right).

Palm Springs 2007, visiting the Joshua Tree National Park. Notice the tiny climber on that huge rock.

What are your Golden Rules for festivals? Leave them in the comments section below!