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Some thoughts on what makes a great film festival

Stan the Man, Ania T and Joe Russo at Sands.

As you probably know I’ve been to hundreds of film festivals over the past 20+ years, and I work for a handful, so I think about them a lot and what festivals work at what level. Sometimes you admire the big guns (Cannes, etc) and sometimes you find a perfect little gem – so that’s why I’d like to pay tribute The Sands International Film Festival of St Andrews. This is a tiny festival with a big appeal.

Here’s what worked, and some things other (bigger) festivals could learn from Sands:

It’s held in a place where people want to go. Simple as that. Gorgeous town even if you don’t like golf. You can recreate the Chariots of Fire run on the West Sands beach nearby. It’s also a place small enough that the festival wasn’t swallowed by other happenings (as can happen at larger city festivals). And Scottish people are cool and friendly.

It’s a festival that knows its audience – whether that’s the local audience in St Andrews or the specialized audience of film students studying at the University of St Andrews (which is a partner). The team knows the local audience might not quite yet for, say, eight hours of Lav Diaz, but they are a cultured group of film lovers and those tastes can be expanded over the coming years.

The festival has a USP – it’s not just throwing a disparate group of films at the screen and seeing what sticks. The programme is all first and second features. Even the big names that come to town show their early works – like Stanley Tucci did with a screening of Big Night or Reinaldo Marcus Green did with a screening of Monsters and Men. It's interesting to hear them reflect on those films with a bit of distance.

The festival for now runs for three days and it’s perfect. In a long weekend they get a bigger impact than if they stretched out the same activity for a week. So often I see a tiny festival running for 10 days and the visiting filmmakers aren’t there at the same time, the local audience can’t come every night, etc., you're in a public screening with 2 people. Three days is perfect for Sands right now.

Even though it’s small in scale you can still have deep industry contacts made because there are only a small group of filmmakers and industry guests in town. Because of the connections of festival director Ania Trzebiatowska (who also programmes at Sundance and is well known and well liked widely across the industry) and Hollywood kingpin Joe Russo (festival patron), the people who show up are amazing – you might find yourself on the putting green with the casting director of Avatar or having breakfast with the costume designer of Bridgerton.

Everything was very well organized and scheduled. I went to another small festival recently that was really a shambles in terms of bad organization – sending out wrong schedules every few days, telling people the wrong times for events, trying to do too much with limited resources so that everything was done poorly. Sands had enough infrastructure around a great screening venue and a handful of other locations all in easy walking distance. Things started on time. Also, there weren’t 5 screenings/talks going on at the same time. Maybe two to choose from, which is right for this size of festival.

Housing guests in a posh hotel never hurts – I will miss the velvet drapes at Rusacks (but I do realise that not every festival has the resources for this and my tip is, is it better to invite 10 guests and treat them well, or to invite 20 guests and have some of them sleeping on a mattress on the floor – yes that happened to me once or twice and I wasn't happy).

Speaking of resources, Sands’ success wasn’t just about money, it was about people. Joe Russo and his company AGBO weren’t just writing a cheque -- he brought his new show Citadel as a secret screening, he participated in about four talks, and a LA cohort from AGBO were in town talking to people all weekend. There were no VIP rooms, everyone was mingling together.

I know some people will say, 'Sounds like this festival has Joe Russo’s money so sure they can be successful.' But I’m thinking of other great festival vibes in my past at one festival that was so broke I as a lowly journalist had to buy the beers for the festival staff on opening night (ha), and another that couldn’t put me up in a hotel but had a guest room in a festival board member’s house, and it was the welcoming vibe and smart ways of bringing people together that counted in both those instances.)

No festival is perfect, and one thing I’d love to see Sands do more in future is show more work from Scottish talent (I know they tried to show at least one great Scottish debut film this year but the distributor wouldn’t give it to them due to release timing. Bah.)

I so often go to festivals and want to beat my head against a wall when I see that they mis-understand what might best serve their audience and the filmmakers in their programme. [and I hold my hands up, none of the festivals I work with are perfect]. So when I see people doing it the RIGHT WAY I have to shout about it. Not only sucking up to get invited again to Sands next year.

I think it's also in our post-pandemic world that craving of real connection with films and with other people. Yes, I will go to the Cannes behemoth (and I will love it and be exhausted by it) but this kind of small festival feels like what I am craving more and more.

Anyway, here’s the story I wrote for Screen about the festival.


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