So What’s The Deal With…Short Films on The Festival Circuit?

Following up on my recent post about film festivals offering opportunities to air on HBO, I reached out to NYC-based filmmaker Donald Conley whose short film SLEEP was a finalist for such a prize at the American Black Film Festival in 2012. A big thank you again to Donald for sharing his insight on navigating the festival circuit. SLEEP, which “explores the loss of adolescence and the psychological effect death has on the minds of young children”, will air again on HBO Go starting June 15th— Christina B.



Photo by Lemia Monet.

How would you describe your creative path post-NYU?

Donald:  I was pretty broke after I graduated but I still had my apartment. I immediately went into working as a production assistant for different shows to get some set experience and make money while doing so. I worked whatever jobs became available:  television, movies, reality TV, entertainment events. I was on the festival circuit with Underbelly [2008 short in which “a male teen and a female streetwalker form a friendship through passion and art”] at the time and I ran out of money to really submit that film like I wanted. I ended up crafting a DVD distribution contract with Indieflix. I sent them Underbelly and we worked out a partnership for DVD purchases and online streaming rentals. Had I been a good promoter and salesperson, I could’ve made some pretty decent money.

I finally got sick of PA’ing and Underbelly had outlived its Indieflix contract, so I started working full-time for Clarendon Entertainment. It’s now defunct but they were a company that dealt with distribution for Black shorts. Clarendon had started creating its own digital content to be syndicated Online and I directed some of the material. It helped me get creative again. I put that feeling on the back burner to work a season with 30 Rock as Alec Baldwin’s set assistant. That was the closest I’ve ever been to the action as a PA and I learned a lot about how to produce a show. I declined an offer to go back for another season so that I could direct a third short film. That became SLEEP.

A simple Google search of “Donald Conley Sleep film” tells quite the festival journey. Congrats! How did you approach submitting SLEEP to festivals?

Donald: Thank you! The first festival I applied to was the American Black Film Festival. It’s probably the most prestigious Black film festival in the country. Other festivals might get upset that I wrote that but that’s my opinion. The film wasn’t complete by the time I had submitted so I sent in a rough cut and I voiced that to them. The picture was very close to being locked. The music and sound wasn’t completed and the color grading had not been started. I began budgeting a little bit for film festival submissions which is something I did not do for Underbelly. When I raised money to produce the film, I kept a little bit for distribution. ABFF had called me. I remember missing the call and seeing an unknown number in my log. There was a voicemail. I listened to the message and it was a woman from ABFF telling me to call her back.

It felt like I couldn’t breathe. Like it was a dream. I called back and was told that I had been accepted and that the finished print needed to be delivered within three weeks. I immediately called everyone on my team and kicked up the gears. They were all so overjoyed and extremely helpful with getting the project finished. That’s how the film was completely wrapped up in a short amount of time.

After ABFF, I was ready to start submitting to all festivals. I went in with a bit more strategy this time. I began to research festivals to see how many Black shorts had been programmed in the past recent years. I didn’t want to waste too much money. I picked the top festivals that every filmmaker submits to then I also sent off to smaller festivals. As the year went on, I began choosing even more regional festivals. And festivals that were in their first years.

If I did another short project, I’d probably start mapping out the festival road before the project was even complete. I’d say a big mistake of mine was not researching early bird deadlines right after I wrapped. I got hip to that quick but not before losing out on some savings or festivals that I had missed. Withoutabox is great for this. I started using the Watch List option too late in the game. But my strategy was to go small with SLEEP. Apply to Sundance and Tribeca of course. But really focus on the festivals that aren’t exactly the most popular. They’re cheaper and more willing to program a film like SLEEP.

I learned this lesson after taking a gamble with the Chicago International Film Festival. The Chicago Black Harvest Festival had really wanted to screen SLEEP. The issue was that both Black Harvest & Chicago International require Chicago premieres. And Black Harvest came first. I turned them down in hopes that I’d get Chi International. It’s a HUGE festival. I was rejected. I told Al Thompson of ValDean Entertainment this and he said “Bruh, if a festival is excited about you, go with them.”  He was right.

I learned that I needed to know what type of film I had. SLEEP is a great film but it’s not a big film. It may have a difficult time competing with a short like Granger David’s The Chair or Justin Tipping’s Nani. Not comparing my film to theirs AT ALL. Those are awesome shorts. Very different than mine from a production standpoint. SLEEP is a small story built for more intimate festivals.

With a Best Narrative Short Award at Montreal International Black Film Festival, Audience Award at Soul For Reel and being a finalist in American Black Film Festival’s HBO Competition, it seems SLEEP has been warmly received by diverse film festivals? Are there really “riches in niches”?

Donald: I may be a bit confused by this question. I’m assuming you’re asking if life gets better with these accolades? If so, I’d have to give a very low key yes. An extremely soft yes. I always laugh with fellow filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe when we discuss the phrase “Award winning filmmaker.” It’s just a tag but a necessary one. I’m very proud of those awards. Absolutely proud. And being a finalist in the HBO Competition awarded me the opportunity to screen the film on HBO, which is DOPE.

It’s just awesome that people are responding to the film. That’s the most important thing. Screening on HBO and winning awards makes me a more marketable filmmaker. That’s the business side of creating art.

The personal side of making movies is the interaction of the audience with your film. I’ve been in a theater with over 200 people watching SLEEP and it did not feel the same as being in a cramped room with 20 people watching it. When I was in that cramped room, it felt like the walls were squeezing in on the energy. I felt everyone’s heart beating in my chest. They were drawn in and absolutely destroyed by the story and performance from my two young leads. I couldn’t believe.

I guess what I’m getting at is that riches for me is hearing about how the movie affects every individual. The accolades are great. But those are for showing me that I haven’t made the wrong decision with my life. The gold is in moments like when a teacher from SVA contacted me to speak to her class about directing child actors. And when a hospice center in Maryland asked to screen my film for their patients and volunteers to facilitate a conversation about bereavement. That’s when I’m fulfilled.


The HBO Competition at ABFF was completely new to me. How did you find out about it? What’s it like to see your short play on such a well-known cable TV channel? Would you recommend filmmakers seek out festivals with HBO prizes?

Donald: ABFF is so low key, which is weird because it is one of the largest festivals for filmmakers of color. I became familiar with ABFF when Darius Clark Monroe and Nikyatu Jusu screened their shorts a few years back. They were my influences when I was studying at NYU. I worked on Darius’ set when he filmed Midway starring Albert Hall.  And African Booty Scratcher by Nikyatu was so fresh. I met her on the set of Midway and became infatuated with her style. I knew that I had to surround myself with these artists.

A year later, they were both off to this festival called ABFF. I hadn’t heard of it prior to them going but when they came back, it was like the stuff of myths. Luxury cars pick you up, your travel is paid for, you’re provided free lodging. On top of all that, you get paid to screen on HBO. It was one of the very few, if not only, film festivals that included a monetary award just for screening. Every year after that, someone from NYU grad film screened at ABFF and I’d learn more about the festival each time. I submitted Underbelly in 2008 and it was rejected. With SLEEP, I finally got my chance to shine.

HBO is awesome. That’s all that can be said. Just plain awesome. If HBO is involved in whatever festival you research, you gotta submit. They have the funding and they use the funding.

Getting a film prepared for broadcast is a lot of work. There was maybe a 30 page contract that I thoroughly read through. There are restrictions on how the movie could be used once purchased by HBO. E&O insurance is a whole different beast from production insurance. The best advice I can give any short filmmaker that plans on something like this is to make sure that everything in the film is original. The script, music and maybe even the costuming. Hide all logos. Be mindful about what you are seeing in the frame. If you did not write the script or you adapted the film from some short story, make sure your business is correct because everything must be copyrighted.

But when the film aired, there was so much excitement. I grew up watching HBO. It’s a big deal to have your project be seen nationally like that. And it’s proof that you are actually up to something when you tell friends and family that you are a filmmaker. Now, they can see that this is actually what I do. That this is actually profitable. And they can see that!  My parents were so proud of me. My mother must’ve watched the film every time it aired. She ordered SLEEP On Demand multiple times. I guess she figured she would personally drive the ratings up. LoL. She laughed when I told her that HBO doesn’t really work like that.


Still from “SLEEP” by Donald Conley.

From your film’s Facebook page, I see you screened at Atlanta Film Festival last month and will play On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Festival later in April. What’s your secret for maintaining momentum? Is there a point at which you call it a successful wrap?

Donald: The momentum is kept with the screenings. SLEEP is still in its festival year. I have to keep sending it out there. I have to keep looking for opportunities where I get approached to have SLEEP screen in non-festival settings. It’s like money. You have to work hard at it and eventually set yourself up to have the money continue working for you. These projects are the same way. Curators attend festivals and seek out the filmmakers to screen for their own events. It’s a cycle.

I don’t think you ever call it a successful wrap on a project. Look at Spike Lee. He just celebrated the 25th anniversary of She’s Gotta Have It. He’s been moved on to other projects but he still had to show his baby some love. It’s still being awarded. And he’s still being rewarded. I’m ready to move on to something else but that doesn’t mean that I’m done with SLEEP. A lot of people put sweat into that project so it would be unfair to drop the curtains on its progress.

Our projects are our children. I give birth to the concept and develop its intelligence but one day it grows up and lives its own life. It’s still my baby though. It may call me up in the future and ask for some attention. Can’t turn a blind eye to your baby.

And as always, what’s next?

Donald: That next chapter of my life will be going off to England for a full year to focus on my acting studies. I’m going for my MA in British Theatre. I have never lost my love for performing and it is time for me to give that some much needed attention. In the future, I hope to have my two passions cohabitate.

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