Women in Film: A film festival's managing director's advice and more

Published on in Director's Cut

By Dani Lyman, Crew Connection 

Whether you are a new filmmaker, a writer or just cinephile, choosing the right festival can feel like an overwhelming task. A quick google search reveals more than 3,000 festivals in the world! North America is host to nearly 70% and the cost often isn't worth the reward. However, one bright light shines from the desert with their commitment to quality, education and the film community. The Phoenix Film Festival boasts the titles of Top 25 coolest film festivals and one of the Top 50 worth the entry fee by MovieMaker Magazine. PFF has a special place in my heart, as well. They accepted my first film in their Student category when I was just a wee first year film student at the local community college.

The Phoenix Film Festival is celebrating its 20th birthday this month and I had the pleasure of speaking with their Managing Director Leigh Ann Dolan. Leigh Ann has an impressive background as a TV and film producer and an excellent reputation as a consistent friend to the film community and supporter of new talent. Here, she gives us a behind the scenes peek into film festivals and successful submissions. 

Leigh Ann Dolan at the Phoenix Film Festival

Dani Lyman (DL): How did you become the Managing Director of PFF?

Leigh Ann Dolan (LAD): After I finished producing my first feature, The Governor, I knew we wanted to take it to film festivals, but I didn’t have any real film festival experience. So my now husband Bob and I volunteered for the Phoenix Film Festival in 2006 to get a look behind the scenes. The following year, we submitted our film and were accepted and I got to experience the festival as a filmmaker. I worked on other projects and eventually moved to Los Angeles, but I kept in touch with the people I met at the festival. So when I came back to Arizona from California, I wanted a way to stay in the industry but take a step back from production. I had just had my first child and I became the Events Director and eventually started working full time at the Foundation. We are a nonprofit and run year-round programs to educate both film lovers and filmmakers about the art of film. 

DL: What inspires and interests you most about film festivals?

LAD: Film Festivals are so necessary – ESPECIALLY in this time of online streaming. There are SO MANY CHOICES and it’s hard for viewers to find even the really great independent films among the hundreds of thousands of titles online. Film festivals allow films to find that core audience that will champion the film online and to their friends. Festivals also allow film goers to find their new favorites.

One of the things I like best about the Phoenix Film Festival is that it’s all in one place and our access is so open, meaning you will be able to watch a film with the director, ask questions in the Q&A and then see that same director in the Party Pavilion later on and have a drink with them. It allows a much deeper level of interaction between audience members and filmmakers.

But the true best kept secret about the Phoenix Film Festival is the lobby linewhich has the power to make or break a film. Waiting patrons start comparing the films they have seen and will recommend films to other filmgoers. We regularly have films by filmmakers with no connection to Phoenix whatsoever sell out their screenings based on word of mouth alone. We say that our filmgoers are going to find their new favorite movie in the line before going into the theatre.

DL: What changes have you brought or are you excited to bring to the festival?

LAD: Well, first, I have to say that nothing at the Phoenix film Festival happens through one person alone. We are so grateful to have an amazing team that works very hard to keep the festival going. We have been able to grow the Phoenix Film Festival from a small 3-day festival to an 11-day Festival with over 300 films, parties, panel discussions and education programs!  

I am especially excited about the film education programs we have developed at the Phoenix Film Foundation. I think the current data is that teenagers spend an average of 9 hours a day using digital media. Our Student Education programs provide schools, students and teachers the chance to learn about digital technology, storytelling and filmmaking from the professionals, and use these skills in the creation of their own projectturning some of that 9 hours into a learning opportunity.

This year, we are involving the Girl Scouts in our Kids’ Day program at the festival to get more young women interested in the numerous careers in the film industry. 

DL: How does your professional industry experience come into play in your role?

LAD: My background in producing comes in very handy when setting up a large event like the Phoenix Film Festival. Just like any commercial or film shoot, you have to secure permits, have adequate security, hire crew, pre-plan the locations and setups and keep everything moving. There is a ton of pre-production that goes into a festival of our size and whatever you do in pre-production saves time and money down the road – both in film and in events!

DL: What is a unique challenge you have faced in this role?

LAD: For someone who works in the Film Festival industry, I do not see very many movies in a theatre at all. I have 2 kids, age 9 and 4, and I rarely get out to see a film. I love film, but the only chance I get to watch anything is if I can get it at home (provided my husband and I aren’t too tired after the kids go down).

DL: What do you look for in submissions? What stands out to you most?

LAD: I wish there was an answer to this question other than “a good story well told,” but that’s what we look for. 

While that alone doesn’t help much, one thing I like about the Phoenix Film Festival is that we are very transparent with our review and selection process. We have about 70 film screeners who watch our film submissions. They are an amazing, dedicated and diverse group of film lovers who mirror our film-goers at the festival. If you enter your film into the Phoenix Film Festival and it is not selected, we are happy to send on the viewing committee’s and/or the programmer’s notes. Clearly, we don’t want filmmakers to compromise their artistic vision just to get into a festival, but sometimes, you feel like you are submitting your film in a vacuum. It’s nice to hear thoughtful feedback about your film. 

DL: In your opinion, how do film festivals affect local communities and the film community at large?

LAD: Festivals in and of themselves are a celebration. Film festivals unite people from diverse backgrounds and bring communities together to celebrate the depth and breadth of what the independent film world has to offer. They platform for often marginalized stories and voices  that don’t have access to traditional film distribution outlets. In addition, film festivals provide a great learning opportunity – not only for filmmakers, but for the film-going public as well. To watch a film and then hear from the filmmaker about why their story needed to be told, film-goers gain a deeper understanding of the medium of film and the things it can do. 

The Phoenix Film Festival was started in 2000 by Phoenix filmmakers who wanted to make space for film in Arizona. Twenty years later, that space has grown quite a bit, and we certainly have a lot to celebrate.

DL: What advice do you have for filmmakers and screenwriters hoping to find success through festivals?


  1. Know what you want out of your festival run. Do you want to sell it and be done with it? Are you there to gain a strong word-of-mouth audience before a VOD run? Do you just want a whole bunch of laurels for your poster? Whatever your reason, define it before you start submitting. That will allow you to better target your submissions to the festivals that can help you reach your goal. There are festivals for everyone and every movie. 
  2. Do not take rejections to heart. There are a thousand reasons a film doesn’t get selected and often it’s that the film is too long or too short or there are too many comedies, or there are a couple of films with the same theme. It’s rarely that your film sucks. You have believed in it enough to get to the point that you have a finished product. You will find your audience. Don’t let a rejection letter derail that.
  3. Network, network, network. We have screened films by returning filmmakers who all worked on a film together after they met at the Phoenix Film Festival. Film is a collaborative medium, and you just never know who you are going to meet. 
  4. Don’t forget to have fun and watch as many movies as you can. 

DL: How does a filmmaker or writer know their work is ready for festival submission and to share with producers, agents, distributors, etc.

LAD: I always tell younger filmmakers to get a few “other people” to watch it. I’m not talking about your parents or your film teacher or your friends. I’m talking about people you don’t know at all. People who have no vested interest in whether your film does well or not. Ask them how much money they would have paid to see the film and if they would tell their friends about it. Would they stop and watch your film while scanning through Netflix or Amazon Prime?  

Dani Lyman writes for Crew Connection--an online database of international, best-in-the-business video crews and professionals available on your schedule – days, nights, and weekends. 

She is a film nerd, writer and enthusiastic fan of The Wire. She writes about the art of storytelling, the creatives that inspire us and the technology that brings it all to life.  

The Phoenix Film Festival takes place March 26th - April 5th in the warm and bustling Scottsdale, AZ. Check out phoenixfilmfestival.com for more information and be sure to get your submissions ready for next season! 

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