Pitch Yourself As Much As Your Project, Says Galway Film Fleadh Director of Programming

Article Image
Photo Source: Courtesy Galway Film Fleadh

Welcome to Behind the Fest, Backstage’s questionnaire series with film festival figures looking for that next big festival hit. Featuring behind-the-scenes insight from the organizers and programmers at Sundance, TIFF, Cannes, and more fests from around the globe, these tips might just hold the key to your indie film success story!

Perhaps best known for premiering acclaimed indie musical “Once” back in 2006, the Galway Film Fleadh is distinguished as the discovery place of new Irish cinema. Kicking off its 33rd annual program July 20, this year’s program features a mix of outdoor, online, and in-theater showings with 11 world premieres, 45 new films, and over 100 short films. Opening night will see psychological thriller “Here Before,” hailing from debut director Stacey Gregg and starring Andrea Riseborough, premiere.

Backstage spoke with Galway’s director of programming William Fitzgerald about championing voices on the periphery, the myth of the “90-minute rule,” and a hard-learned lesson about networking as a filmmaker: “If you approach people on a personable level first, the work will follow. You’re pitching yourself, as well as your project.” 

Tell us a bit about the Galway Film Fleadh.
The purpose is to be an advocate for indigenous Irish cinema and a platform for cultural cinema from around the world. It was started by Irish filmmakers to be a platform for them to exhibit their work to their peers.

I think our place on the festival circuit is that of the discovery place of new Irish cinema. On a national level, we would be seen as Ireland’s “industry” fest. We host a European co-production market, which also serves as a kind of trans-Atlantic bridge to the U.S and Canadian industries, as well as an annual state-of-the-industry conference. I think we’re distinguished on the circuit by the good craic and bohemian vibe that’s a part of Galway city and permeates our festival.

What do you look for when evaluating film submissions?
We love cinema that showcases identity, cultural agency, and independent spirit. Last year we started a new competitive section for first and second features, called Peripheral Visions. That speaks to two things we try to do in our programming: be a festival of discovery, and champion voices on the periphery—whether that’s on the periphery geographically or on the periphery of the industry. But like most programmers, we’re looking for films that have an authentic voice and enough filmmaking craft to back it up. 

Our film program and marketplace both have an open submissions process and we work with a number of pre-screeners to get through the bulk of submissions, and to ensure that submissions are viewed by a plurality of tastes.

What are some benefits for filmmakers submitting to the festival?
Of course, we have a track record of being a launching pad to the wider industry. The most famous example is that a little indie film called “Once” premiered at the Fleadh back in 2006. [Sundance Film Festival programmer] John Nein was in the audience, so from there it went to Sundance and the rest is history. To this day, so many people relay this story back to me when I say I work for Galway, including most recently at an industry event in Tokyo before COVID hit. Another good one is that screenwriter Will Collins won our Pitching Competition in 2007. Three years later the film he pitched, “My Brothers,” was our Opening Night film. And he went on to write the Oscar-nominated “Song of the Sea” and “Wolfwalkers.”

Any year-round educational resources filmmakers should know about?
Newcomers should know about our Script Pitching Competition. And filmmakers with financing in place should know about our Best Marketplace Project Award. And this past year, we took advantage of our new online platform to present a season of hard-to-find films from the first-wave of indigenous Irish cinema in the late ’70s through early ’90s, available to diaspora and cinephiles worldwide, and promoted through the network of Irish embassies and consulates. 

What advice do you have for festival-goers? How should filmmakers get the most out of networking?
I would say that closed mouths don’t get fed so don’t be afraid to ask what a festival can do for you; we’re here to help, to be your platform and your advocate. This needs to be balanced with some awareness of the limits of any one festival. They’re not all created equally. But one thing they all have in common is that everyone is working very hard, and wants to help. So if you get 60 percent of what you asked for, take that and turn those resources into the best campaign possible for your film or project or pitch at that fest. Also, a green mistake—and one I’m often guilty of because you get so in-the-zone—is to make everything about work. If you approach people on a personable level first, the work will follow. You’re pitching yourself, as well as your project. 

What’s your best piece of filmmaking craft or career wisdom?
There seems to be some prevailing advice that your film has to be 90 minutes to get a sale. As a programmer annually working my way through a lot of submissions, I see this “rule” dragging down a lot of otherwise really good films, if they were allowed to be the 75-minute films that they want to be. So if getting selected for festivals is part of your strategy to get a sale? Well, maybe don’t put the cart before the horse. 

And what’s a favorite film you’ve seen recently?
We’re opening this year’s festival with “Here Before,” the debut feature from Belfast filmmaker Stacey Gregg. Gregg ratchets tension with Hitchcockian flare for a first-time feature director and directs Andrea Riseborough in another one of her unbeatable performances.

Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!