How to Shorts
IDFA boasts a strong line up of feature-length and short documentary films and new media works every year. Industry professionals across the entire documentary industry converge during the markets, ready to do business and meetings. With the collective experience of the Docs for Sale team engaging the industry over the years, we have gathered an extensive (although non-exhaustive) list of professionals who work with short format documentary.
Festival international du court-métrage de Clermont-Ferrand (France)
Tampere Film Festival (Finland)
Hong Kong Film Festival (Hong Kong)
Uppsala Short Film Festival (Sweden)
Busan Short Film Festival (South Korea)
Kaohsiung Film Festival (Taiwan)
Kurzfilmtage Winterthur (Switzerland)
Guadalajara International Film Festival (Mexico)
Sao Paulo International Short Film Festival (Brazil)
Encounters (South Africa)
Regard sur le court (Canada)
Rendez-vous Internationales du documentaire de Montréal (Canada)
Sedicicorto Short Film festival (Italy)
Short Shorts Film Festival in Asia (Japan)
London Short Film Festival (UK)
Hot Docs (Canada)
Sheffield DocFest (UK)
CondeNast Entertainment - under 40 min
AlJazeera for AlJazeera Witness – 25 min only
Voice of America – 15, 30 min only
ORF (Austria) - 25 – 45min
VRT (Belgium) - 26min
The Guardian - under 30min
ARTE in particular cases
New York Times Op-Docs - under 40 min
True Story – platform, subscriptions, variety of topics
Wind Cinema (mainly MENA region)
Women Make Movies - shorts longer over 15 by women-identified filmmakers and about the lives of women
Freak Independent Film Agency – counseling, strategy and festival distribution
Check out the insightful interviews with sales agent Wouter Jansen (CEO of Square Eyes), Stefan Kloos (CEO of Rise and Shine World Sales), and filmmaker Tal Elkayam (who world-premiered a film in the Luminous section in 2021).
What is your experience with Docs for Sale?
Docs for Sale is one of the best documentary libraries to be part of. I also use it throughout the year to brush up on the films I have missed and to get a bit of an overview of the market. For me, the films that do best are of course the films that are in the main IDFA competition sections, and I think that's the case for every market. There's a lot of films so the ones that are premiering at the festival and are in the focus are mainly those that I watch.
For other films, you have to do a bit more work to get them seen. With films that we have in Best of Fests or in the Shorts Competition section, if we put them in Docs for Sale, they get viewed, but we have to be more on top of it with outreach to get people to watch them. But since it's available during the whole year, now more people who don't go to IDFA use Docs for Sale.
The system works really easily. You get an overview of who saw your films with contact details, so you really have a lot of insight, and you can see how well they did during that week.
What do you suggest for newcomers to Docs for Sale who don't have a film in the competition sections?
If you don't have a film in competition or you have a film in a side section and you don't have a sales agent, it's good to study IDFA’s Guest List beforehand and make sure to reach out to people you want to see your film because it quite easily gets drowned. There's a lot of films playing in every festival, so you have to make people aware earlier.
I think that's a good thing about the new location at Felix Meritis: that it brings everything together in one spot. Docs for Sale used to be a kind of its own island, but now it's combined with people who are at the Forum and the Producers Connection, so it's easier to bump into them if you do your homework. Now doing the work in advance can really help you meet all these people at the location.
What is the best way to reach out to them?
Any correspondence that's automated-looking doesn't work because there’s just too many films and you get a lot of such emails. If I don't get a message sent to me that explains why exactly I should watch a film, then I think it's probably not for me, and I have already too many other films to watch. So when somebody sends me an email saying, "I know you have this film in your catalogue or I know that you worked with this film before, and I think my film would make sense for you to watch," then I will look at it.
In general, it's good to have an idea where your film would fit or who might like it. During Docs for Sale there are one-on-one meetings, so this is also an easy way to meet them. If you put your film in Docs for Sale without being in the official selection of the festival, make sure you're there and you can meet people.
Having a film in Docs for Sale gives you access to the Docs for Sale Lounge and that really makes it easy to meet the people you want to meet. But being as specific as possible is always the best. People just don't have enough time, so anything that they don't feel is urgent enough to watch, they won’t watch. I think this is true throughout the year in general too. Always try to personalize—this is the concept of my company, to be tailor-made, because otherwise you just drown in all the films that are asking for attention.
As a sales agent, how do you see the value of the physical presence of the filmmaker at Docs for Sale?
If you have a sales agent, you should trust that they do the work regarding promotion and sales, and I don't think you have to be there that much. But if you don't, then it's definitely important that you are there to give that extra push for somebody to watch your film. For me, personal connection is also important. If I meet somebody and the conversation is nice, I will be more enthusiastic to watch the film and I already know this would be a good team to work with.
For instance, I worked this year with a Serbian short from IDFA, but I actually met them four years ago when they had a short film there as well. So, I already knew them from meeting them at Docs for Sale, and that's where we took it from with the new film. Having a face connected to the film is really important, and you can sometimes also be slightly more convincing. Sometimes it's difficult to say in an email why you think your film is interesting for me, but in a conversation it's easier to do that.
If you're a filmmaker with a film in IDFA and Docs for Sale, what should you pay attention to?
I think going into IDFA, you have to be clear about what your goal is because you are already busy just being in IDFA. But as soon as you step into Docs for Sale or the Forum, you realize there's this whole super busy part that you were not aware of. There's just a lot of different types of industry audiences at the markets—sales, buyers, distributors. You have to be clear about what you want to do, because all of it is quite time-consuming. Do you want to try to get your film out there, or talk to people for your next project?
Don't have the expectation that people will come to you; you really have to map everything out beforehand. The week before IDFA, my agenda for IDFA is full, so the only spontaneous thing I'm doing is during Guests Meet Guests when I bump into people. Then I also have a lot of filmmakers that I've been in touch with but haven't met come up to me. That's the only moment you can chat spontaneously.
If you want to have sales representation there, try to reach out before because they will want to see the film prior to IDFA so that you can have the meetings during the festival. If you want to meet with festivals, point them to the film before. You really have to be super active and make sure you schedule a few moments that you can be full-on in Docs for Sale.
What is your experience with Docs for Sale?
The Docs for Sale catalogue is a good database for buyers to access. We use it for the films which we are promoting at IDFA, although we always have personal screening links for buyers available at the same time. You should see the Docs for Sale catalogue as a place where buyers know they can find films of interest for their programming needs. Do not expect buyers to watch the whole film. Very often, they will just watch a couple of minutes—but that gives us the opportunity to catch up, and check in about their interest, and provide additional information. And finally—hopefully—sign a deal.
What do you suggest for newcomers to Docs for Sale?
If you have a film selected for IDFA, you should definitely come to Amsterdam for a few days and spread the word about your film. Don’t expect to bind sales on the spot. But Docs for Sale and other social events are a great place to meet people and talk to them briefly. All this can help build a network for following up after IDFA by email. Only a few people will have time to look at rough cuts during the festival. But a short trailer or sizzle tape which you have on your laptop and available for sending out is something that can say more than many words.
Think about the environment: do the promotion, but don't flood the place with postcards and flyers. Have a short and small presentation or pitch deck already printed (for those who like to put it in their pocket) and as a PDF (for those who prefer digital). No need to mention that your contact information should be on it, right?
As a sales agent, how do you see the value of the physical presence of the filmmaker at Docs for Sale?
I often say you should have a sales agent for your film, but you should never stop promoting your film. However, there is a big difference between telling decision-makers about your film and making them curious, and actually negotiating a deal. Leave the latter up to the sales company. Enthusing people for your film is a great job for both filmmaker or producer and sales agent. You will pitch your film differently than your sales agent will do. And that's good.
You should pitch your enthusiasm and your story—while the sales company will focus on thematic relevance, background, marketing assets, quality of the film and teams, etc. Being present for some days at Docs for Sale is good, but only if mingling with people you haven’t met before is something you enjoy doing. And don't expect to be taken by the hand. Buyers and sales agents are tremendously busy at IDFA and work with several films (not only yours) at the same time.
If you're a filmmaker with a film in IDFA and/or Docs for Sale, what should you pay attention to?
Be enthusiastic about your work but be brief. Be clear in your communication: one sentence on who you are and what your role in the production is. What’s the story? What’s the relevance for the international audience? Try to take the point of view of the person you are talking to and think: why would my story be interesting and relevant to them and their audience?
How was your experience at Docs for Sale?
Last year my film Figure-Ground world-premiered in Luminous and it was also part of Docs for Sale. IDFA was my first international film festival ever, so premiering the film there and being in Docs for Sale is what got me acquainted with the topic of international distribution. I didn't know a lot about this and what to do and how to prepare, so I learned by doing it and talking with people in the meetings.
When I got to Docs for Sale and got the list of people I was supposed to talk with, I tried to understand better what I needed to look for. I produced the film by myself without any help and I didn't really know what the difference between a distribution company and a sales agent is. Docs for Sale is the greatest platform to understand things about festivals, sales and distribution after you make the film.
The meeting request form with all the industry guests I could talk to and their respective professions helped me understand what I wanted to do with my film and what my film needed. Then I went to all these meetings, and it was useful for me to have a short synopsis to not say out mechanically, but instead highlight what makes me excited about the film.
What did you learn about attending industry markets as a filmmaker?
After Docs for Sale, I took part in other market platforms and what I learned is: don't talk just about your film, trying to pitch it, but talk about other things like cinema or society that can make a wider connection with people. If you are just pitching your film, you see people just as buyers and this is a big mistake. You have to know the human being that is in front of you. The distribution game is also storytelling in a way, and you have to know your audience.
My film is about human rights but also about YouTube materials. I know if I sit with a human rights festival programmer, this is what I need to talk about with them as opposed to YouTube materials or the look of the film. So, it's good to have prepared two or three versions of the synopsis.
The most important thing is to be confident. There is no one way to do it. I know people who are pushier and just talk about their film, and it works for them because they really believe it. But everybody needs to find a way in which they can be confident in the conversation, because this is the most attractive thing to do.
Another thing is the creative design. In IDFA specifically it's important how something looks, because there are big TV channels and distribution companies present, so if you are independent, good flyers, poster and business cards, this whole package can sometimes really be helpful and it's also really fun to do. The creative work doesn't end when the film is completed.
Did the meetings at Docs for Sale result in anything specific?
My film is hard to define genre-wise. The YouTube genre has exploded in the last 10 years, but my film is not typical of it and I had difficulties getting it out. But I know that the meetings are not just about this particular film, but also about getting to know people in general. Docs for Sale is an amazing platform for this. Maybe some festivals that I talked to didn't select my film, but they might remember me in three or four years when I have a new film, so it will be easier to approach them. All the meetings in Docs for Sale are important.
How did you function away from pre-arranged meetings?
Go to the Happy Hour, but it's a good start to come to Docs for Sale already at noon because you have time to put your materials there. If you are drinking in the bar at 8pm and you have this big flyer to give to a festival programmer who has no bag, you know they're going to throw it away.
What tips or warnings can you give to first-timers at Docs for Sale?
The most important tip is to watch as many films as you can and have conversations with people who watched the same films. It's important to know the director and the producer. Maybe you will spot the producer at Docs for Sale, and even if you don't have a meeting, you will have a point of connection, and maybe it's the best person who you can talk to. It's important to know filmmakers too, because if you also have a film there, it's a nice connection and you can then also meet their producers with whom you might get a chance to work in the future. It's a good way to make contact. Everybody goes there because of the films; we have to remember it's about cinema.
As for the warning: don't be shy. I was really shy before IDFA. I got this list of contacts, and I was uncomfortable sending emails to people who don't know me. But now I know everybody gets hundreds of emails each festival, and you have to have the drive and no fear. Also, do your research before Docs for Sale about what it is, what a sales agent is, and what it is that you are looking for. The more research, the more comfortable you are at Docs for Sale, but even so, there are always things you will only learn once you are there.