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The Babadook to The Nightingale: festival release strategies

Causeway Films producer Kristina Ceyton breaks down their tailored approach to film festival releases and the significance they can have.

Since the inception of Causeway Films some six years ago, the company has produced four distinctly different features: The Babadook, Cargo, The Nightingale and Buoyancy.

Each was represented by a different international sales agent. And each made their world or international premiere at four different overseas film festivals: Sundance, Tribeca, Venice and Berlin respectively.

While 2014 psychological thriller The Babadook went to 39 film festivals around the world, 2018 zombie drama Cargo only screened at two because Netflix acquired the worldwide rights during post-production (it had a theatrical run in Australia in May 2018, the same month it launched on the streaming platform around the globe).

The Nightingale, a 1820s revenge drama set in the Tasmanian wilderness, will release theatrically in Australia on August 29 after a world premiere In Competition at Venice International Film Festival in 2018, where it won two awards, plus 2019 screenings in Sundance and Sydney. While Buoyancy made its world premiere at Berlinale 2019, will next be seen at Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) in August, with an Australian theatrical release in October and potentially more film festivals to follow.

It just goes to show, says producer Kristina Ceyton, that it’s all about having “a strategy per film”.

“It's not one way fits all,” she says. “It depends when you launch, what other festivals follow and what kind of film it is. With The Babadook it went to so many because it was a genre film and it fit a lot of those festivals, but The Nightingale [won’t] follow the same pathway.”

It also depends on the other participants in the project – producers, distributors and sales agents – and their plans for the title locally and internationally. In the case of The Nightingale, it was also produced by Bruna Papandrea and Steve Hutensky from Made Up Stories, as well as Jennifer Kent.     

The Nightingale marks the second collaboration between Ceyton and writer/director Jennifer Kent after her breakout hit The Babadook, which was the first feature for them both.

She says with The Babadook, that launch in Sundance and the following film festivals helped build buzz and create a passionate international fanbase. And in the end, The Babadook made 48 times its Australian box office overseas.

Even though every feature since The Babadook has been so different, Ceyton says there was a lot she and fellow Causeway Films producer Sam Jennings took away from the experience.

“We learned a lot about the power of film festivals and the best way to capitalise on a launch of a festival,” she says, “Then usually once you have that A-list festival in place and the second tier festivals it kind of takes on a life of its own.” This is aided by the longer term strategy of the sale agents, distributors, or streaming company who are each trying to position the feature for maximum impact with audiences.

Ceyton says on the whole, film festivals play a “hugely important” role for features. “I really think it's a launchpad for a film's commercial and critical success, especially for independent arthouse films,” she says.

“In the lead up to the festival and then during the festival [when] respected film critics do reviews, that I think is the first instance where you start to build a following…

“Also very often with those festivals there's markets that are attached, so it's an opportunity for the sales agents to screen the film to buyers or for buyers to view a film as part of a festival with an audience, which is basically the best way to view film. And that helps sell the film and sell off territories.

“So commercially it's really important but also critically to build that momentum and interest.”

The Babadook

SALES AGENTS & MARKETS

Screen Australia requires an international sales agent and local distributor as part of the eligibility criteria to obtain feature production funding, to ensure there is a viable pathway to audience (read more about it in the Film Sales series). The agency has also put together a list of international sales agents.

Every Australian titles’ sales agent is listed on their entry in The Screen Guide, with the four aforementioned Causeway Films features as follows:

Title Australian Sales International Sales North American Sales
The Babadook Umbrella Entertainment eOne N/A*
Cargo Umbrella Entertainment Bankside Films + Headgear Films N/A*
The Nightingale Transmission Films FilmNation Entertainment, LLC Endeavor Content
Buoyancy Umbrella Entertainment Charades N/A*

*covered by international sales agency

Ceyton says they try to attend at least one to two international markets a year to meet with sales agents.

“Ideally Cannes and EFM (European Film Market). There's also 37ºSouth here in Australia that manages to attract very good sales agents, so that's a really important opportunity to attend,” she says.

“What it helps do is build relationships and new connections; you can start pitching your projects so you can sound out how the market reacts to any given project you have on your slate…

“[And it] helps you get you know the latest trends – you get a taste for what buyers are looking for, what sells for how much. Especially in the last few years where the distribution landscape is becoming increasingly fractured and there's different ways to finance films and introduction of the streamers. So it's [about] getting a really good sense of how you can put the finance together for your film.”

Screen Australia has put together a list of all the international markets producers can attend.

At first, Ceyton says as their slate and networks have grown, they can be more specific in their approach.

“Early on it was about trying to meet as many sales agents as possible. Now it's much more much more tailored. We kind of know who would suit which project.”

Dale Fairbairn, Screen Australia’s Manager of Festivals and Industry Partnerships, says this tailored approach is essential, and the agency maintains a public Sales Agent Directory, which provides a free and valuable tool to industry.

“From researching it a producer could set up targeted meetings at markets and begin to think about possible festivals,” she says.

With The Nightingale, they also had Endeavour Content come on board for North American sales. Endeavour, which is affiliated with talent agency WME, also represent Jennifer Kent. Also the other producers – Steve Hutensky and Bruna Papandrea (Gone Girl) – have US offices and networks.

“[Endeavor Content] helped broker the financing structure early on,” Ceyton says. “So they took the US rights and then helped do the sales to the US market, which they know really well… I mean FilmNation do too, but it was just the way that it was set up early on in terms of the financing as well.”

Fairbairn says a sales agent and the Australian distributor will strategise for the international and local release, respectively.

“Importantly, a film has a 12-month shelf-life for the top festivals,” she says.

“So that means being aware of screening dates when there are invitations from various film festivals*, or commitments due to funding from a festival. The window for maximum exploitation is short. Planning is important. The top festivals after all provide some great opportunities to get your film in front of audiences, the industry and the world media. They key parties (i.e. sales agents, producers, distributors) can see them as being part of their overall tool box to achieving some great outcomes for a title.”

*Screen Australia notifies creators when an international selector is visiting via the Screen News newsletter. For instance, the Venice selector is currently viewing films in Sydney.

WHEN TO MAKE A FESTIVAL PLAN

Kristina Ceyton Kristina Ceyton

Ceyton says they are thinking about pathways to audience – and that includes film festivals – as soon as they read a script, or become involved in a project.

“We do say ‘this is the Sundance Film, whereas this is the kind Cannes film’,” she says. “Even when we put together our development applications, it's something that is part of our marketing strategy and how we [plan to] get that film to an audience.”

This is in line with Screen Australia’s approach, where under the Development Guideline changes an emphasis has been put on knowing your pathway to audience, particularly for arthouse cinema ideas.

Ceyton says: “And when you pitch in to sales agents at a market you do kind of roughly mention which festivals it might go to… So it's embedded really early on.”

How it’s financed can also influence the festival release strategy. Partly, because of the key role a sales agent plays in getting the film in front of festival selectors. But also depending on whether a film festival is actually within the finance plan as an investor.

In the case of Buoyancy, the MIFF Premiere Fund gave minority co-funding to the project.

Ceyton says Buoyancy was allowed to make its world premiere at Berlin in February 2019, but as per that financing deal they cannot screen it at any other festivals until after it premieres at MIFF in August.

“Part of the financing agreement with Melbourne Film Festival is that you can only show it at one festival beforehand because they are investors,” she says.

“After [MIFF] you can screen somewhere else and that's definitely our goal… to screen at a few more festivals in September-October and then have the theatrical release.”

While it didn’t impact Buoyancy with Berlin, nor would it impact Sundance or Cannes, it’s worth noting that because Venice International Film Festival falls just weeks after MIFF, and only takes world premieres, it means these features would essentially be ineligible for selection there.

Adelaide Film Festival also provides investment through the ‘ADL Film Fest FUND’ however it is a biannual festival and has some flexibility around premieres. The Nightingale had its Australian premiere there in October 2018, fresh off the back of the world premiere in Venice.

INFLUENCES ON FESTIVAL SELECTION

Ceyton says there’s a reliance on sales agents to get features in front of the right representatives from film festivals.

“[Sales agents] have very strong relationships usually with senior programmers… programmers take their recommendations very seriously,” she says.

“So [they can] get you to the top of the pile.”

Screen Australia hosts a number of these selectors to view new titles throughout the years. Fairbairn says from there the selectors will either preselect titles to the next stage, or not.

“It is good if a producer is working closely with their sales agent who is strategising the pathways to the market.”

Another factor that can impact festival selection is when you finish your edit.

“Timing is everything,” she says, and for The Nightingale, “timing-wise [Venice] just worked out perfectly for finishing the film.”

Different festivals have different requirements. Fairbairn says Cannes will take an international premiere if the film has screened in Australia, but it can’t have been in competition e.g. one of the Official Competition at Sydney Film Festival.

“Venice insist on world premiere status,” Fairbairn says.

Screen Australia also has a list of festival profiles, including what they look for and submission deadlines.

Ceyton says the problem is when selectors are looking at films and it isn’t quite ready.

“[Then] you're showing a film that hasn't got the proper grade, hasn't got the proper sound and that can really impact the selection… like imagine The Babadook without sound, VFX and the grade done.”

But on the other hand, you can’t hold onto it until the next year’s selection, and if you miss out on say Cannes, then there’s Toronto, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, Telluride and Sundance just around the corner. “So it's kind of like, what have you got to lose by showing it, even if it's not quite ready.”

Fairbairn says the top selectors are used to seeing unfinished films, but filmmakers have to be sure the story is working.

“Once they pass on a title, there is no second chance,” she says. “Usually they are watching at least at picture lock and Screen Australia provides notes on what is yet to be done. The top festivals have very stringent preselection conditions and you can feel confident your film will be treated respectfully by skilled people.”

What is difficult, is getting a 1:1 meeting with a visiting selector. “Due to the volumes of entries nowadays it is not possible to have a personal meeting with the decision makers of the A-list festivals. You have to trust that your film will do the talking for you. Over time filmmakers build up contacts, and your sales agent is in the business of having these large networks. But at the end of the day it is all about the film.”

MOMENTUM AND MESSAGING

For a film like The Nightingale, Ceyton says they knew where and how they launched it would shape the rest of the film’s life.

“It was absolutely critical for us to launch at a prestigious film festival - it's not an easy film to watch, it's also R-rated, it's over two hours long, it's tackling confronting subject matter,” she says.

“Premiering at Venice was kind of a dream come true. It's something every filmmaker dreams about.”

But even after the film was selected, there was still a lot of strategising both in the lead up to, and during the festival – through publicity, and maximising on the buzz around positive reviews and awards.

She says firstly their sales agent FilmNation worked with them to find the right publicity company. Sales agents typically have preferred publicists they like to work with.

<i>Cargo</i> Cargo

“Make sure you're on the same page and you're selling the same film,” she says. “Especially with a film like The Nightingale that tackles pretty confronting issues, we wanted to place it in a way and handle it really carefully. So you want to have your sales agent, but also the PR company that will really launch it into the world the right way.”

They also knew some of the line of questioning that would come up during Venice. When The Nightingale was announced as part of the line-up, the festival came under criticism for its lack of female representation. Of the 21 selected films, Jennifer Kent was the sole female director. A sexist remark hurled during one of The Nightingale’s screenings further ignited the subject matter.

But for The Nightingale team, it was about being strategic with select critic screenings, which were critical in building the momentum.

“That the top critics really review the film and that was majoritively positively reviewed really helps the film's ultimate theatrical release, anywhere,” she says.

“Here in Australia, but also in IFC in America where the film's about to launch, they can really tap into and build on those reviews.”

From there, the aim is to get the cinema-going public of arthouse film lovers on board, and broaden the audience from there. “A film festival like [Venice] allows you to launch into getting a wider reach.”

The timing of a festival screening can also propel or hinder momentum.

“Once you get into a festival too [sales agents] can usually broker you a better slot earlier on in the first few days of the festival, which is again hugely important because it helps you attract the right audience for your film and the right buyers… a lot of the [sales] happen in the first few days.”

But it really depends. The Nightingale’s screenings were in the last three days of Venice and she notes, “that was a very fortuitous slot for us.” It was from those screenings that The Nightingale went onto win the Special Jury Prize and the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor for Baykali Ganambarr.

“To win those two awards really built on that initial launch and reviews,” she says. “It's like a tick of approval I guess.”

Fairbairn was at Toronto International Film Festival when it was announced that The Nightingale had won two awards and says everyone was “buzzing” at the news. As for when to aim for a screening within the week or so window of a festival, she says: “The timing of Venice, Toronto and Telluride so close together can have a different impact on the screening slot than say Cannes or Berlin, where the first five days or so are preferable and where their corresponding markets are in full flight.”

After Venice, The Nightingale went to Adelaide Film Festival, then Sundance and Sydney. “[With] Sundance we were very fortunate that they selected the film despite it having been world premiered previously,” Ceyton says.

“So once you are in one of those bigger festivals you get approached by all these different festivals. In the case of The Nightingale we sometimes withheld festival screenings in territories where we hadn't sold the rights yet because we wanted to preserve that. Once the distributor is on board they can manage their time frame in their release and their kind of press around that.”

COMMERICIAL VS FESTIVAL

While festivals definitely play a significant role, particularly in the types of projects Causeway Films is interested in, Ceyton says it’s not what drives their slate.

“We're driven by choosing projects that we feel have the potential for critical acclaim and the potential to go to a festivals, but that also have that commercial break-out potential,” she says.

“Really we’re driven by the uniqueness of the story, the diversity of the voices and supporting new talent. As long as we're excited by [that] then then we're in.”

The Nightingale releases in Australian cinemas through Transmission Films on August 29.

Listen to the full interview with Kristina Ceyton on the Screen Australia podcast, which you can subscribe to via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Pocket Casts