Strategy Overview and our Experience at AIFF
“[Children of the Wind] is a terrific underdog story, and a gem of a film – exactly the thing you’re hoping to stumble across at a festival…And you don’t need to know the difference between windsurfing and couch-surfing to enjoy it.” -Simon Braund, Empire Magazine
WRITTEN BY PRODUCER ROBERT McCORMICK
I will describe our strategy to take “Children of the Wind” to the film festival circuit prior to general release by looking first at the role of film festivals in the Indie film world, and then by way of example, our experience at the Aruba International Film Festival where “Children of the Wind” had its world premiere last month.
First, “Children of the Wind” is a character driven documentary that happens to center around three of the world’s finest freestyle windsurfers, but from its inception we hoped the characters and the story would carry the day and appeal as much to non-windsurfers as windsurfers. Further, we knew if the appeal was broad, it would completely change the game as to how we market the film—namely by introducing it through the film festival circuit.
Film festivals are the best springboards for documentaries. Festivals are where the distributors and buyers go, where unknown films can be picked up for theatrical release, and where TV networks are looking for product. Festivals also provide documentaries with the opportunity to create buzz and word of mouth. But there is one big caveat. You have to have a very good film to be invited to the renowned film festivals, and an even better film to create a stir once you’re in. Competition to get into the big film festivals is extremely intense with Sundance, for example, getting several thousand feature films submitted each year—many of them documentaries and selects some 16 to be screened at the festival.
So as with most Independent film makers, the first question for us was: do we have a film good enough and with a wide-enough appeal to be accepted at major film festivals, and if so, which ones? As to the first question, “are we good enough?”, it was answered in a private screening held in New York in April, 2012 in front of an invited audience that included many experienced, award winning film makers, who we knew would be honest in their appraisal and ultra-critical. Their response was the first of several very pleasant shocks we would receive over the next two months. Yes, they had plenty of constructive editing and technical notes for us, but their overall feedback was unanimous: they loved it, and thought we had a real gem in the making — a film with a great story, great characters, beautifully shot and with enormous potential.
It was shortly after this screening that the Aruba International Film Festival, who knew of our film, contacted us to ask if we would submit it for consideration. As mentioned above, for Indie film makers the key is to choose festivals that are a good fit. For example, if the festival is too big, or concentrates on genres way off target, the film could get buried and not noticed. We felt for several reasons the perfect festival for our world premiere was the Aruba International Film Festival (AIFF). Not only does AIFF have a mandate to promote films about, and shot in, the Caribbean, but Aruba itself has very close historical and cultural ties to Bonaire including a shared language: Papiamento—which is used often, with English sub-titles, in “Children of the Wind”. Also, the Aruba festival invites some 60 members of the foreign press to attend, so we knew the potential coverage could be extensive.
Our second big test was how it would play for the 15 members of the AIFF selection committee—again made up of film makers in the U.S. and Aruba. Within 24 hours of receiving the film, all members of the committee had viewed it and we received an e-mail from Aaron Hose, the director of the Caribbean Series saying everyone was blown away: “Wow! This film will not only have wings, it will soar!” The festival proceeded to offer plane tickets and accommodation for us from New York, as well as our protagonists from Bonaire, and to give the film a full-on red carpet premiere in the prime slot at 8:30pm on the first Saturday night of the festival. Pleasant shock number 2. We couldn’t have asked for more.
When I arrived in Aruba several days before the premiere, I ran into the festival executive director Jonathan Vieira who said: “you’re the film of the festival, the one everyone’s talking about.” Since the festival had premieres from major Hollywood studios in the line-up I qualify this as pleasant shock number 3.
And so it was on Saturday night, June 23rd, a long, white limousine pulled up outside the red carpet in Palm Beach, Aruba, site of the festival, and with a huge crowd gathered and cameras flashing, out stepped COTW director Daphne Schmon, me–producer Robert McCormick, Taty Frans, Kiri Thode, Bjorn Saragoza, Patun Saragoza, Elvis Martinus and all accompanied by friends, family and significant others. The only protagonist missing was Tonky Frans, who couldn’t attend as he was in the Canary Islands training for Fuertaventura. The largest theater in the complex of six had been set aside for us, but the demand for tickets was so great, they added a second theater to play the film simultaneously to meet the demand. This was our third big test. None of the protagonists of the film had seen it; nor had anyone outside the festival’s selection committee—as this was a film now much evolved from the New York screening.
The response was extraordinary. Elvis Martinus told me after he had never been to a film where people cheered and clapped through-out. They also were moved to tears and drawn to laughter. We couldn’t have been happier. There was a brief Q and A with the audience after and a young man in his 20s grabbed the mike and looked at the Bonaire windsurfers and said: “I just want to say…you guys give me hope. Watching that just changed my life.” But the biggest reward for us was the response from the leading characters themselves: Taty, Kiri, Bjorn, Elvis and Patun. They loved it and for us that meant everything.
The next big shock came the following day. It was a Sunday matinee and our second and last screening unless we won the Audience Award, in which case we would get a third screening on the final night. As I walked over to theatre complex I had no idea if anyone would show up. The premiere the night before was filled with invited guests, but that Sunday I knew it would be a completely different story with attendance only by the General Non-Windsurfing Public Paying Full Ticket Price, and would anyone be interested? Already I had seen some of the screenings with tiny audiences in attendance and was told that wasn’t uncommon at festivals.
As I arrived at the complex I thought the new Batman movie was getting an advanced screening. The line-up was down the long corridor outside the theaters and out the door of the building. As I entered I asked the festival director what in the world was happening—why all the people? His response: “they are here to see your movie.” Then, a woman who recognized me came up and said: “it’s all word of mouth.” This was ‘really big pleasant shock’ number 4.
It was after this screening that we realized we had a film that was interesting and inspiring to a general non-windsurfing audience. An American well-connected in the film business gave the film a standing ovation at the end and came up to me after. He said: “I was dragged here by the Minister of Sport and I have no interest in windsurfing, but I can only say that was one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.” He proceeded at some length to tell me why—and I really liked what I was hearing. I called over Olympic windsurfer Patun Saragoza who was standing nearby. The night before Patun had asked: “Bob, we like it, but how will it play in a place like New York?” I introduced Patun to the American. “Patun, you want to know how it will play in New York? Ask this man.”
That night, in a celebration worthy of the Golden Globes in Hollywood, Daphne and I and the Bonairian contingent sat at a large round white-linen covered table under starlight with hundreds of dignitaries, celebrities and the foreign press as the festival awards were announced. The biggest award was the last one: the Audience Award. “Children of the Wind!” exclaimed festival director Aaron Hose and a huge cheer erupted from the audience. Daphne and I went up to receive the award, and then I introduced all the Bonairians by name as they came up and joined us. We were surrounded by flashing cameras and the jubilation of the festival directors and the energy of the large crowd.
On the closing night of the festival, by tradition, the film that wins the Audience Award is given an encore screening. Because of demand, they gave COTW two additional screenings and they both sold out.
The experience we had at AIFF exemplifies why the festival circuit is an important launching pad for Indie film makers. We have now submitted the film to selected film festivals in the U.S. and Europe and the adventure continues. The rules of the major film festivals are very strict as to how many prior screenings the film has had, and where, but we will keep all the news updated on our website: www.childrenofthewindmovie.com
For everyone who is wondering when they will get to see the film we plan to release it on DVD after we finish the festival circuit. This will be in early 2013. The DVD will have some very special extra scenes that we weren’t able to put in the final film, but that will be of particular interest to our fellow windsurfers.