Independent Films by the Numbers

The marketing of Independent Films

Sharing Films between Festivals

I just added a new feature to the database site, which allows a visitor to see how many of the films listed for a festival are shared with other festivals. This is kind of interesting if you want to your film show at many festivals. Some of this information may be biased by festivals occurring at the start or end of they year, but it is still fascinating. Here is the list ranked by percentage of films shared with other festivals:

75% Newport International Film Festival (2007)

65% Sundance Film Festival (2007)

63% Chicago International Film Festival (2007)

60% Telluride Film Festival (2007)

59% Hamptons International Film Festival (2007)

55% Vancouver International Film Festival (2007)

53% Seattle International Film Festival (2007)

51% San Francisco International Film Festival (2007)

49% Woodstock Film Festival (2007)

48% Sarasota Film Festival (2007)

47% Florida Film Festival (2007)

47% London Film Festival (2007)

47% Mill Valley Film Festival (2007)

45% Cannes Film Festival (2007)

45% Toronto International Film Festival (2007)

44% South by Southwest Film Festival (2007)

43% Maryland Film Festival (2007)

41% Slamdance Film Festival (2007)

39% Los Angeles Film Festival (2007)

36% Berlin International Film Festival (2007)

36% Tribeca Film Festival (2007)

32% Ashland Independent Film Festival

31% Silver Lake Film Festival (2007)

28% Palm Springs International Short Film Festival (2007)

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Tracking Film Activity

As you can tell I like to look at films through the lens of data. When you are promoting your own independent film, I would argue that collecting data on your film’s activity should be a continuing activity of yours. As an independent, you do not have the resources of the big studios who share a bent for data collection about their films. You probably cannot afford expensive press clipping services and the like, but this does not mean you are not without means.

By monitoring your film’s website for inbound traffic and a smart use of search engines, you can rival the media monitoring capabilities of the big boys and girls.

One of the great things about the web is its ability to track things. Your own website has this wonderful capabilities whether you realize it or not. Every click a user makes can be tracked by even the simplest of web servers. The challenge is making sense of this data.

The good news is that you are not without options to help make sense of the web log data from your site. Many ISPs provide reporting for sites they host and Google now offers a free analytics package at, which you can enable by placing a small bit of HTML code on the pages of your website. Once installed, a web site reporting tool can allow you to track all sorts of behavior on your site. For purposes of monitoring your film presence online, I recommend taking a look at the number of unique visitors (aka “uniques”) and any report showing inbound linking to your site.

The number of uniques show how popular your site is. If there is activity/buzz online about your film, it will typically result in an influx of visitors that can seen as increased unique visitors. We use unique visitors over number of page views, since a single user can view more than one page. Individual requests of your website (aka “Hits”) are typically not a useful measure, since each page can result in many hits.

When I marketed the documentary Shelter Dogs, it was easy to see any message board posting or e-mail blast sent with a mention of the film. The number of uniques would shoot up over night, and then it was just a matter looking at the inbound links to see where the traffic was coming from. If it was a website that I could access, this enabled me to read the vox popular of the film in almost realtime. Given the controversial nature of this film (you would not believe it), this work was invaluable. We were able to see the positive and negative reactions to the film and our PR efforts, and tune our messaging. It also enabled us to find audiences interested in the film that we have not anticipated, such as ethics programs at colleges.

Not all online activity results in traffic to your web that you can track, so in addition to the website tracking I like using a healthy dose of search engine work to round out my regular data collection. In this work, it helps having a unique film name, such as “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Films with more common names such “Interview” are harder to find in search engines — the search term interview yielded 30,000,00 results and there were 3 films on the festival circuit in 2007 with this name. It becomes hard to find your film in sea of results and confusion.

The best way to work with a search engines if your film has a unique name or can be tracked using some unique feature (e.g. the main character’s name, director, setting, etc…) is to set up a Google Alert, which is a trigger in the Google system to send you an e-mail when a new news article comes out mentioning your film, a blogger post a new post, etc… An alert is easiest set up from the News tab on the Google interface… type your search term in the News search box, hit enter, and at the bottom of your results will be a link to get the latest news on your search term. You can choose what to receive (news, blog, etc..) and how often. I typically get a daily digest to limit my e-mail and ask for comprehensive results. It can be your own low budget clipping service!

This might all sound overwhelming, but once you get things set up and get into a routine it you might enjoy it. It is easy to feel that your film is making no impact. Tracking your film enables you to see how much an impact your film is really having.

BTW, I advise having a thick skin and a sense of humor in this work. Anyone can say anything good or bad about your film. If it gets bad, you need to take a deep breath and move on.

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I have been quiet of late due to work and my efforts to add more festivals to the film festival database. I am working on Outfest and Ashland. I recently added in the Hamptons, London, Sarasota, and Vancouver Film Festivals. I will in the next few weeks be adding more functionality to the site and build out some better analysis of the individual festivals. Work, work, work.

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The Lathrios Festival Search Engine is Live

I have just launched version 1 of my Festival Search Engine. It allows someone to search for films or festivals. It is the research tool that I wanted a year ago when we started marketing our latest film.

I have some 18 film festivals in the database and will be adding more over the course of the next weeks.

Comments positive or negative are welcome.

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Best Run Time for Festival Short Films

Deciding upon a run-time for your independent short film is a classic optimization problem. On one hand, you want to make the film very short (~5 min) so it can most easily be slotted into a festival calendar, but it is best to make a film longer (>8 min) to maximize your chances of winning an award. Obviously, these two goals are at odds with one another.

The key is to find a time that is the best blending of timing to be screened and ability for that runtime to win an award.

This is not an easy task. There are a number of ways to do this process given the incomplete data we have, which will give you varying insights. A true understanding of the exact tipping point is impossible with the dataset I have since there are not enough data to provide a statistically valid sample at a very granular level. That being said, some general trends can be discerned.

The 8 minute mark is the tipping point for films having a long enough run time to allow them to win an award. Films shorter than this probably have trouble competing, since one can only do so much story development in 5 minutes. Despite their craft, these films naturally feel less substantial than longer films where more story development can occur.

The 21 minute mark is another tipping point at which the film becomes harder to slot into a festival given the constraints of their schedules.

Within the 8-21 minute span of time, there appears to be a maximum point at around 15 minutes where placement is maximized and wins are solid. My gut tells me that if you have a strong product this optimal run time can be pushed up to around the 18 minute mark without much risk. Indeed, the strength of the 15 minute maximum probably results from being a “round” number for filmmakers and the resulting proliferation of films of this length.

If you have a short film at the far end of the time spectrum (approaching 40 min), the strategy for success is more risky, but given the strength of these films to win awards it can be more rewarding. The key for these films is placement at a top tier festival (Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, etc…) and have an award win there. If this happens, the buzz around the film will allow you to do well on the festival circuit and not be constrained by the normal restrictions of festival schedules. How can you do that? I leave that up to you and lady luck for the moment.

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CHAID Analysis of Festival Films

Last night, I completed a CHAID analysis of my database of festival films exploring what is predictive of a film winning an award or showing at more than one festival in my sample.

CHAID is a common statistical tool of direct marketing optimization and is a fun as stats get. Essentially, it is a massive exploration of a dataset using countless Chi-Square tests. The output from this analysis is commonly referred to a decision tree, which allows the researcher to segment the database using a series of variable predicting another variable. In this case, I used this technique to explore what variable are predictive of winning one or more awards and the showing of a film in more than one festival.

The results are broad, but here are the highlights:


  • The structure of the title seems to have little influence on whether a film would win. There were some loose patterns of adjectives use leading to increased award potential for non-fiction films and the use of a vowels to start a title, but it was not much beyond normal variance created by chance alone. Other parts of speech metrics, number of words in a title, and title length analysis proved insignificant.
  • Self-described country affinity did have some patterning. Films with an affinity with the USA did marginally better than non-USA films, which is not surprising given the number of US film festivals in my sample. Japanese affinity films (n=52) did not garner a single win, although this could be the result of so many Japanese films in my sample being classic films that are not in contention for an award. This being said contemporary Japanese film is under-represented in my sample. Lastly, films with a declared affinity to Israel (made in or dealing with) have a five times greater chance to win an award than films without this affinity. Political correctness prevents me from reading too much into this last insight.
  • Non-fiction films seem to be more likely to win awards than fictional ones. This is perhaps the result of the larger volume of fictional films than non-fictional films at festivals paired with the existence of special documentary awards. This insight is prone to issues resulting from a large number of films in my sample not tagged for this data column.
  • It should come at no surprise that film that show at multiple festivals tend to win more awards. This is a chicken and egg issue, since are they showing at more screening because they won an award or do they increase their chance of winning awards by showing at more festivals. I think it is a mix of both given my experience.
  • As I noted already, short films that are longer than 8 minutes win tend to win awards more than shorter shorts.


  • Sundance seems to be the strongest festival for predicting play at multiple festivals. Some of this result may be timing, since Sundance occurred early in my sample. The general result of this CHAID for festival is that there are two kinds of festivals international feeders (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Tribeca, Berlin, etc…) and regional/specialty festival (LA, Newport, Seattle, etc…). Doing well at the feeder festival tends to open up doors for playing at regional/specialty festivals. Again, this should be no surprise to anyone with experience of the festival circuit.
  • Like with award winning behavior, the title structure seem unimportant to success at winning awards
  • National affinity tending to look like alot like the data for winning awards, except that the trends were weaker across the board for these traits.
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What is the best running time for winning awards?

I have begun an exploration of what makes for a winning awards film at festivals and once again the run time of the movie seems to be a prime mover. The analysis is not fully complete, but I do know the following:

  • Short movies tend to win more awards the longer they are… if they both play in the same festival, a 35 minute short is more likely to win an award than 5 minute film.
  • There are two run time inflection points for short films in my studies so far — 8 minutes and ~16 minutes. A CHAID study shows that shorts running longer than 8 minutes are twice as likely to win awards than ones less than 8 minutes. This pattern exists at an adjusted P-value of 0.04, which means we have 96% confidence that this pattern is not the result of chance. The inflection point of 16 minutes is based upon an analysis of the chance of winning an award for a given running time mixed with the chance of getting into a festival based on the running time. It seems that the mid-teens to twenty minute mark is the optimal point. I am working on refining this.
  • For features, it seems like the optimal length for winning awards is somewhere around 80 minutes
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First Letters of Film Titles

I have often wondered if the first letter of the title matters for film. I do know that films sold in catalogs tend to do better if they begin with first letters of the alphabet… simpily because buyers wil see these titles first when scanning a list of films.

I have completed my first go at the film database and have calculated the first letters for films in my sample. The results are as follows for the top 10 starting letters:

S – 10.1%
M – 7.5%
B – 6.4%
C – 6.3%
L – 6.0%
T – 5.9%
A – 5.8%
D – 5.5%
P – 5.1%
F – 4.9%

I looked at another comparative sample of english language titles to see how these compared – an analyis of Wikipedia titles done in 2004.

The most striking finding using a Chi-Squared analysis is there are many fewer “J” titles in my sample and many more “I” titles. The “I” titles make sense since Wikipedia is not expected to have so many titles starting with 1st person pronouns.

Other trends: Fewer than expected C, K, U, V, and 1 titles; and more than expected S, M, D, F, W, I, O, and U titles in my sample compared to Wikipedia.

I don’t know what this all means yet, but it is fun all the same.

Note: I used the first letter of the second word for all titles starting with “A [word]” and “The [word]” patterns.

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Film Titles

A good title can make all the difference for a film. It is the film’s first impression and is the key to public talking about your opus. An uninspired title can lead to seats not being filled at festivals and the confusion of your film with others.

What makes a good title? Some of that question can be answered by science, but much of it is art. The science side is easier to explain…

A film title is that starting point of the brand behind the film — the brand name. A good brand name should be memorable and allow the film to be differentiated from its peers. To succeed in this, the title must satisfy a few simple mechanical constraints:

  • It cannot share its name with another film, or have a name too close to another film. And yes, every year there are films in the film circuit that regrettably share names
  • It should be brief in order to help your audience recall it. Long titles like “A Conversation Between Two Miserable People in Dr. Tourin’s Waiting Room” might be fun, but they are hard to remember, while “Murder Party” is easy
  • It should be easy spelled to assure it is written correctly
  • It should be easy pronounced to assure people talk about film correctly

A good brand name should be also be ownable and trackable.

By ownable, I mean that the name should be readily associated with the film in the mind of the audience without confusion or competition. Try to avoid common or hackneyed phrases! If you need to have a common name, it is not the end of the world, but it will require more work to develop your films brand. If you are doing a film on weddings, it is hard to stand out from the crowd with a typical name like “In Sickness and in Health,” so try to be more creative.

By Trackable, I mean the name should be easy tracked in a search engine, so you can manage the word of mouth and media surrounding your film. Tracking can be time consuming, but it is very instructive and critical to your efforts. When I am working on a film, I will set up a Google alert to ping me every time a new blog post or news article mentioning my film comes out. Without the ability to track the impact of your film, you are flying blind as a marketer. Unique titles are easier than common titles.

One thing I have noticed is that films with numbers in the titles can trouble if sometimes the number are spelled out and other times they just numeric. This will cause people to have trouble finding your film in a search engine and make it more challenging for you to track your film. Go ahead use numbers, but be diligent and consistent in how you write your film’s name.

On warning about tracking… you will need good emotional control since you will not always like what your find. When I worked on ‘Shelter Dogs,’ the posts on the web ranged from praise to death threat against the main character and us the filmmakers. You need to check your emotions at the door and focus on how you can use the vibe around your film good or bad to gain an audience for your piece and its message.

The art of the title is the next part of this story, but that will have to wait. I have provided enough basics here upon which to chew and anyway I have work to do.

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More on Festival Film Titles

Some more random descriptive statistics about film titles….

  • 89% of Festival Titles contain at least one noun vs. 20% that contain at least one verb.
  • 23% have at least one Adjective, while only 8% have one or more adverbs
  • 4% of the above nouns-based titles contain a possessive
  • 5% of titles contain a number (numeric or alpha)
  • The average title contains just shy of 3 words

To help illustrate the structure of word titles better, I present the following histogram showing counts for the number of words used in a title.

Number of Words in Festival Title

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