Behind the Scenes: An interview with a Festival Programming Coordinator

Interview by Sin Popena

After you complete your film the job is only halfway done. The next step is to send it off to festivals, where it will be enjoyed by an audience, maybe win an award and get distribution offers. This process can be more than a little daunting. I interviewed seasoned programming coordinator Ana Paula Pereira de Souza to get a behind the scenes glimpse of the festival industry, and get some insider tips. She started off as a programming assistant while doing her MA in critical film studies at USC, and has worked on a huge array of festivals ever since.

Festivals she has worked on: Sundance, Ambulante California, No Budget Film Festival, Slamdance, NEXT Fest, Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF), AFI FEST, Outfest Los Angeles, Sunscreen Film Festival, Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), 168 Film Project, and USC’s South American Film Festival

Sundance, Ana Souza

Ana at NEXT Fest

Q: So what exactly does a programming coordinator do?

A: A programming coordinator oversees all the submissions of a festival. They check in, process, and file every submission and make sure all the films are accounted for and the entry fees paid. So depending on the festival it can be a monumental task; Slamdance for instance receives over 5000 submissions every year. The programming coordinator also administrates and leads the screening process, ensuring that the team of screeners who watch every submission and provide feedback are keeping on task, and ensuring each film is watched at least twice by two different assistant programmers or screeners. This is a crucial role because that’s what the filmmakers are paying for – they want to ensure their films are taken care of by the festival and seen by the programmers. The coordinator also solves issues that arise and answers any questions that filmmakers might have about the submission and selection process. They are often the first and main point of contact that filmmakers have with the festival, which again is vital as the whole purpose of the festival is to showcase filmmakers’ work and give innovative artists a platform and space to express themselves.

Q: Do you also contribute to the selection process of which films get shown at the festival?

A: Yes, the programming coordinator also contributes to the selection process by helping the programmers watch the submissions and providing feedback on which films might be a good fit for the festival’s program.

Q: How much technical know-how do you need to be a programming coordinator?

A: Managing the films database requires quite a bit of grappling with some complicated FileMaker systems. It also leads into the slotting process where each film needs to be scheduled correctly as the festival approaches, and the events grid has to be constructed and the coordinator basically does all of that stuff too. I manage a lot of the logistics of organizing which film is playing where and making sure the formats are all appropriate to each theater and that the events all flow smoothly in the schedule.

Q: What are your top tips for filmmakers who are applying to festivals?

A: Do your research and start local. I think filmmakers often set their sights on the big festivals (Sundance, Tiff, SxSW, Berlinale, etc) and forget or neglect their local festivals. I think it makes sense to really think about the audience for your film and which festivals cater to that, and then apply to those. It’s also crucial to plan your budget for film festival entry fees from pre-production so you don’t run out of money at such a crucial phase or can’t apply to all the festivals you intended to. I’m also baffled by how few filmmakers actually attend any festivals at all; I think it’s important to attend the festivals you are trying to get into to get an idea of what their programming is like and the kinds of films that have stood out to their programming team in the past. It’s also a great place to talk to filmmakers and festival staff and make connections. Volunteering is another great way of getting that access and that’s also how I started dipping my toes into the festival world.

Looking chic at AFI Fest

Looking chic at AFI Fest

Q: In my country – Latvia – people are now trying to start up new festivals. Any advice?

I think partnerships and sponsorships are vital, as the more relationships you have with cultural organizations, media outlets, companies that can provide product or in kind donations, etc, the more you can get the word out there and support your festival since it’s so difficult being a non-profit. I think also getting submissions is crucial and that’s a combination of promoting the call for entries and doing outreach to filmmakers whose films have played at other festivals and would fit well in your lineup. Another vital part of this is maintaining good relationships with distributors, who can help provide you with some great titles. But I think discovery is important too and getting emerging or first time filmmakers on the map is something so wonderful that many festivals take pride in doing. I’ve heard that if a festival can survive for nine years, it has become established and will continue to thrive. The first few years are always the toughest, but I think especially in such an interesting country like Latvia that has a lot to offer, a festival can really help those new filmmakers get noticed and find their audience for the first time.

Q: Comic moments?

A: At Cannes I was given last minute premiere tickets to Inside Llewyn Davis, so I barely had time to change into a dress and run to the red carpet with my day bag, and I was still in my flats (in Cannes they rarely let you onto the carpet without heels, the dress code is very strict). I had my heels in my bag but once I got to the carpet entrance to put them on I realized I only had one heel and must have dropped the other one somewhere while I was rushing. So I showed the security guy my one heel and said I was going to put them on asap and he let me through. So I walked the carpet in flats like a regular chic Cannes attendee . It was embarrassing, but at least I got to see the film!

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