Indie Film 101: a Strategy Primer with Heidi Van Lier

From the Film Independent Archives:

Originally published in May 2009, this strategy primer for indie filmmakers from Heidi Van Lier is still just as relevant today, whether you have a finished film or not — especially if you’re heading to Sundance or Slamdance.

By Heidi Van Lier / @heidivanlier

I was on 3 panels at Slamdance this year. I was pretty much the only filmmaker, and the other panelists were all seasoned in other areas of independent film. I sat and listened to them telling these indie filmmaker hopefuls about how their products, festivals, or distribution models worked and got a real education myself. But I looked out into the audience and realized they weren’t quite ready for most of this information yet. In fact, most of it was over their heads. Then I understood why I was on those panels: to nod, and comfort the confused souls listening.

After each panel a filmmaker would come up to me and tell me how lost they were, not just from the panels, but by their next move in general. They’d come to the panels looking for some comfort and found they were only more worried afterwards. All of them had the same question: I’ve finished my film, what comes next? Most of them had made films that did not get into Sundance or Slamdance this year, but they’d booked their trips anyway, thinking they’d come up and learn no matter what. They weren’t bitter or rude, they were just blank.

All of these directors needed DIRECTION.

Well here it is…

The first thing I told them was, of course, “You need my book.” Hey, it’s true. The second thing I said: “And you needed to have a strategy BEFORE you made your film.”

But since it’s a little late for that, let’s backtrack and fix it now. First things first: Strategy doesn’t just mean “get into Sundance.” You also need to have back-up plans and then back-up plans after that, and still more back-up plans. You don’t just stop with not getting into Sundance. Of course each film has specific selling points, and as a result, specific needs when strategizing. But don’t get overwhelmed, don’t let this stop you from picking yourself up now. Consider this the next step: MAKE A NEW STRATEGY.

Your New Film Strategy Should Include:

  • Realistic goals for your film as well as unrealistic ones. Sundance is great, but is there also a smaller festival you’ve had your eye on?
  • Research about all other festivals. Especially niche fests that fit your topic and genre. Plot exactly which festivals you’ll be submitting to and when, don’t just submit to everything.
  • Be social. Go to Film Independent events or IFP in your area. Actually talk to people.
  • Screen your film for new contacts as much as possible.
  • Send screeners out to agents, managers, and producers as much as possible when they ask.
  • Look into online distribution as a back-up plan for later.
  • Hold on to your premiere status for the right festival that will get you the most press and opportunities possible.
  • Give up on the idea of winning awards at festivals and getting “glory”, and the idea of becoming a millionaire off your first film.
  • Make contacts at the specific festivals you’re hoping to submit to this year.
  • Give yourself a year with your film before you even consider “shelving it”, and then if you can, give yourself another year.

Things to Remembers While You Strategize:

  • 1. Getting turned down by festivals happens to EVERYONE at some point, so don’t shut down, just keep learning. This has happened to me twice, once on each of my features. The second year I submitted with both films, I got into
  • 2. There are other Shopping Festivals out there. Go down the list.
  • 3. There are Artistic Festivals out there designed just for your specific film. You will always be able to get into those festivals, you just have to find them.
  • 4. Online distribution is growing in leaps and bounds right now, you will ALWAYS be able to find an audience there in the end, even if it’s free.
  • 5. As long as you have a fairly likable personality, EVERYONE will want to help you if you ask. If you’re an ass, find someone who’s likable and make them ask for help for you.
  • 6. Start making your next film. Most of you who’ve made 1 film already are WAY too attached to it, like it’s your child, and all your hopes and dreams are pinned on that child. If you start your next project right away, you’ll stop caring so much that your baby didn’t win Sundance right out of the gate. This time have a strategy BEFORE you start making it.
  • 7. Screening your film for friends, family, and any industry you meet along the way is good. It’ll spark new ideas and open new avenues of interest.
  • 8. Don’t just give up and put your film on a shelf; it will find an audience and some affection if you refuse to let it die. Although, if your film is terrible, and everyone tells you it’s terrible, and even you think it’s terrible, repeat #6.
  • 9. Stop being so bitter and depressed about the films you saw in Park City. It was just their year, they’ve probably worked just as hard as you have, and it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get your shot if you keep learning and working hard.
  • 10. Buy my book, you REALLY need it:


Heidi Van Lier is an indie filmmaker living in Los Angeles. She has made 3 feature films, “Chi Girl” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival, “Monday” which screened as a special screening at the Slamdance Film Festival, and “American Decaf” which will make the festival rounds in 2009. Heidi now programs for the Slamdance Film Festival, produces and directs Slamdance TV during the festival, and continues to counsel 10-15 filmmakers about festival strategy every year.


January 9th, 2013 • No Comments

Leave a Reply

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>