The founder of Festival Formula talks strategy, work-life and fighting the festival fraudsters.
By Chloe McMahon
Since 2005, Katie McCullough has been the guiding light for filmmakers who want to enter the festival circuit. With 88 films and counting currently on their slate, Festival Formula is heavily sought after, for both experienced documentarians and students submitting for the first time. Each film has a unique strategy.
With over ten thousand festivals worldwide, there is a vast array of cultural practices films could clash with. For McCullough though, this should not deter filmmakers, reassuring that “these are film festivals that are international so they have to be open to stuff that happens outside of their own country, their own beliefs. If you have an international open submission call you are going to get things that wouldn’t necessarily be made within their country but it is for an international audience”. However, ease of exposure has its downfalls as McCullough mentions: “You’ll be surprised by how many people send adult-themed films to family festivals.” She takes pride in how Festival Formula “can stop people making these mistakes”.
Since it was first established, Festival Formula has evolved with the innovation of the film industry. “There are a whole lot more festivals and in terms of submission, we have got them online now which saves a lot of money,” says McCullough excitedly, “We have changed how we source our clients with social media and networking events which is always helpful.” However, she notices that there is also an “increase in fraudulent online festivals where opportunists will scam filmmakers out of $25. It’s criminal but it happens unfortunately”. McCullough does provide the solution, explaining; “to combat this, submission platforms have rallied together to find a signatory treatment of verification”.
McCullough points out the difficulties of providing such an open service due to the differing requirements of each festival. There is room for selectiveness in her occupation as she states: “with our submission slate we only ever take on a film that we know is strong and good and also that we can see has potential on the circuit” but she will sometimes take on a film that she knows isn’t “everyone’s cup of tea if it is strong in its own unique way”. However it may not always be the peculiarity of a film that is hard to manoeuvre but the running time that will hold its exposure back. McCullough recalls: “We had a client with a documentary that was 58 minutes long. That’s almost TV length. That was difficult to strategise because in some festivals that is considered a short film and for others a feature. All festivals have their own stipulations and every film we have has a very, bespoke strategy.”
What is now an established service originated from the side project of a then-aspiring screenwriting student. McCullough reminisces: “I kind of fell into it. I went to Bournemouth University and whilst I was there I had to do so many weeks in industry like a work placement. The first placement was a production company in London where I was basically a runner. I didn’t really enjoy that.” Uninterested by the first route of practical film production, Katie followed a more administrative path in her second placement with a production company run by the Blaine Brothers, famous for their 2015 award-winning comedy feature, Nina Forever. In a testimonial, the Blaines praise McCullough, claiming: “Katie is the reason we have won awards for our film work. Filmmakers have the constant problem of spending time making films or engaging with the outside world – Katie bridges that gap brilliantly, ensuring you can concentrate on getting the next one made.”
McCullough notes: “I retained this knowledge about different festivals, realising it is not as simple as ‘I’ve got a film and those are the festivals’”. She reiterates: “It’s more of a case of festivals cost money.”Although originally running Festival Formula on the side whilst she finished her degree, McCullough recollects looking after a handful of filmmakers and realising her service was “very much needed…our way of setting up a company has been very ‘niche’ but that’s just the way it happened.”
Work life balance is not always set in stone for McCullough, she says: “when you work in the media industry there’s always a line that blurs. It’s never a nine to five job. There’s always going to be something that crops up. I know in our industry it’s built on favours. Mention a film and people will offer to mix sound or grade an edit for you. Throughout each point in someone’s career there are favours to be pulled in.” McCullough exudes a refreshing optimism far from the ‘daily grind’. She explains; “I am very lucky to have a job that involves me going to a film festival. I can either view it as work or see it as a bonus that I do a job I really enjoy.” Amongst an economy where education secretaries are tarnishing the arts as not ‘future-proof’, McCullough and Festival Formula itself are an example of how passion and collaboration are a recipe for success.
In ten years time, McCullough imagines a more international workforce behind the service. The evolution of Festival Formula is a constant aim for her. She visualises it to be bigger with certainly more staff, affirming that she “would be quite keen to not only expand the team but also expand our roots to have offices in different countries.” She muses the possibility of working the “thriving film scene in Ireland” and the “energetic scene of France.” It is clear that there is no stopping McCullough in her aspirations. “When I first started doing this 11 years ago, it was just me doing a thing that I knew how to do and I didn’t tell anyone because I thought “well it’s not really a job” but it is. It’s a job that’s well needed”.