When D.C. native Sarah Smick attended Holton-Arms for high school in the early 2000s, she didn’t give much thought to the school’s Latin motto, which translates to: “I will find a way or make one.”
But since she became a filmmaker, she’s starting to understand what those words really mean.
An actress, writer and director, Smick now lives in Los Angeles with her husband Ian Michaels, who’s also in the business. The pair co-wrote Smick’s feature directorial debut, “Friended to Death,” a comedy starring Ryan Hansen (of “Veronica Mars” and “Party Down”) as an obnoxious meter maid obsessed with social media. In an effort to separate his true friends from the Facebook variety, he fakes his death to see how people respond.
The movie gets a wide theatrical release Friday and will be available on VOD May 9, but only after it did its time on the road on what’s commonly referred to as “the festival circuit.” As of next month when the movie lands at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival, “Friended to Death” will have played at five fests, earning packed houses and encore screenings at a few — including Silicon Valley’s Cinequest — and snapping up an award in Edmonton, Canada.
But how exactly does the festival circuit work? Not always intuitively, it turns out.
“It’s a dance,” Smick said. “You kind of have to go through it and stumble and step on your own feet the first time to really realize the path you should be following the next time around.”
Here are a few lessons she learned along the way.
1. Don’t rush to submit a film
The boon of early publicity turned out to have some drawbacks after Indiewire included “Friended to Death” on its “Sundance 2013 Wishlist: 25 Films We Hope Will Head to Park City.” The movie was highlighted alongside the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Admission” (starring Tina Fey) and Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects.”
When the list came out, Smick was still almost a year away from final edits, but she felt pressure to submit a very rough edit of her comedy to the festival.
“Of course we didn’t get in,” she said. “We realized later, reflecting on the whole process, that because we had gotten the buzz early on, we were essentially identified as one of the films on that list that didn’t get in.”
After submitting the movie on a whim to other big festivals with similar results, she decided to hold off until her cut was complete.
And only then did the festivals start extending invitations.
2. Don’t feel pressure to be the next “Little Miss Sunshine”
At this point, independent movies have less to do with shoestring budgets and more to do with a certain aesthetic: They’re quirky dramedies made up of equal parts whimsy, pathos and twee music.
“Friended to Death” is not such a movie. It’s a screwball farce with funny sound effects and over-the-tops scenarios.
It also looks more commercial. When she was shooting the film, Smick’s director of photography asked if she wanted a more indie or cinematic look.
“So I thought about it, and I came back to him, and I said, you know what? I know that making it look more indie and the way we shoot it might mean that it will be more of an indie film and therefore might play better at festivals. There are all sorts of implications. But I want to make it a more cinematic feeling film,” she said. “I wanted it to have an ironic grandiosity to it that would underscore the narcissism of the main character — this exaggerated, completely solipsistic, self-absorbed, obnoxious social media addict.”
Some festivals responded that they liked the film but couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Even so, Smick said she has no regrets about the way she’s presenting her story. She takes it as a compliment that the comedy doesn’t fit in so easily into a preexisting category.
3. Don’t expect to find a distri b utor at a f estival
“It always seemed like the dream was to get into a big festival, and you go and sell your film to a distributor for a million bucks and go home happy,” she said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Smick refers to festivals as “cultural events,” because with the exception of a few — Cannes and Toronto, for example — most aren’t a magnet for wheelers and dealers handing out cash.
There is a plus side to this new world. Generally, filmmakers no longer sign over the rights to their films. Instead, distributors license the films to different platforms while the movie-makers retain ownership of their work.
4. Do expect othe r benefits
Since Smick had already locked in a distributor before heading on the road, she could focus on some of the other positives, including building an audience, networking with festival publicists and other filmmakers, and creating local buzz, which might lead to press.
And don’t sell short the benefit of a little ego boost.
“We want to make our money back, but there’s a certain amount of psychic gain from things like festivals,” Smick said, especially after some of the early setbacks. “We’ve been overwhelmed by how positive the response to the film has been at festivals, despite having heard and sensed that maybe ‘Friended to Death’ was not the typical festival film.”
5. Don’t forget to budget
Just when you think you’ve spent all the money you need to spend to make a movie, along come more expenses. And applying to and attending festivals can add up, from submission fees to promotional material.
To really get the most of the festival experience, Smick said filmmakers need to actually attend, and that means adding on airfare and hotels.
6. Choose the righ t festivals
That being said, some fests recoup expenses. One paid for Smick’s hotel room and another reimbursed the cost of her plane ticket. And then there are the cash prizes, which might add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
“That’s a significant factor to consider when you’re planning a festival submission strategy,” she said.
But first, she had to figure out which festivals were most appropriate for her movie. Hypothetically, just because a filmmaking friend had luck with a horror movie at one festival doesn’t mean “Friended to Death” would be a good fit at the same venue. She may have been a novice, but she knew that much.