Festivals are all about love. I've never seen audiences show more affection for movies than they do at festivals. I think it's about the discovery. It's easy to like something knowing that you've discovered it. Now you can tell your friends about this rare gem that only you know about. It's exciting and empowering. For the filmmaker it's wonderful, but also dangerous. I know many a filmmaker who buy into the festival audience's love, and when their film is released theatrically they wonder... what happened? People are much more critical at the multiplex. The whole experience is very different, and much harder.
For our movie White on Rice we started to self-distribute theatrically while we were still playing in festivals. A lot of people think this sounds counterproductive. If the movie is in theaters, why would you still show it at festivals? But since we were self distributing, and of course broke, we couldn't turn down the opportunity for great publicity (paid for by the festival) and the buzz generated by the loving festival audiences. I give full credit to our amazing team: director Dave Boyle, and Nguyen Tran of Wave Releasing and Dylan Marchetti of Variance Films.
To make the festival work to our advantage we tried always to release theatrically in the festival city the week following the festival screening. That way the festival had a great promotional hook (a sneak peak screening, just before it arrives in theater), and we got all the buzz from the audience who went home and told all their friends about this great movie they just saw AND that they should see it because it would be in the theater the following week! Normally that buzz fizzes out and by the time you return to theaters, nobody cares. This strategy overcomes that dilemma.
The two cities where we pulled this off most successfully (and it's not easy to be able to pull off, mind you) were San Diego, where we won an audience award at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, and Honolulu, where we had a great screening at the Hawaii International Film Festival. In both cities we had our longest runs.
In these tricky economic times it's important to constantly think outside of the box in this way, and potentially dangerous to simply assume a traditional release, or even a "traditional" DIY release (whatever that could be) will work for you.