The Phone Call

How I Played the Festival Game and Won: Mat Kirkby

Mat Kirkby is an award-winning commercials and music video director-turned-filmmaker, whose short film The Phone Call (2013) has received critical acclaim on the festival circuit. The Phone Call, which stars Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent, was directed, produced and co-written by Kirkby. We spoke to the filmmaker about how he got the most out of the festival circuit…

Published on 1 December 2014

How did you come to make The Phone Call?

I was directing music videos and commercials, but I wanted to move into feature films. The problem is…you can’t really make a jump from music videos to feature films, because all you’ve got to show anyone is a three minute film with no dialogue in it. Although I’ve had 100 million hits on YouTube for Adele’s videos, I knew that if I was going to make the jump to feature films, I had to lay out my stall with a short film. That’s why I wanted to make quite a serious, wordy, dialogue-based thriller like The Phone Call. I wanted to show everyone what I was made of.

What was the process of getting Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent on board?

I went through Sally’s agent. I met her for a cup of tea, and we talked about the script. She really loved it and wanted to do it, but she’s very busy. We waited for almost a year for her – she came to us the week after she finished shooting Blue Jasmine with Woody Allen. That’s how you get an Oscar-nominated actress, you have to be patient. In the time that I was waiting for her, I worked on as many commercials as I could and got all my favours banked, with the crew, art department, editor, lights and camera operators who I’d later pull in to help me out on The Phone Call.

It took us three days to get Jim Broadbent. We only sent the script to Jim when we knew which dates Sally was available. We asked Jim’s people if he was available, and that was it – BING! Casting the film was a long game of chess.

How did you pick which film festivals to enter?

I started with the Oscar-qualifying list, which lists all of the first tier film festivals. We [me and my co-writer James Lucas] made a database and put in all of the dates of the festivals, their costs, set ourselves a budget and planned it all out. In the first three months we applied for everything on that list and worked really hard to fill in all the forms. We got rejected from loads of festivals - sometimes on the same day that we’d sent the film in for consideration! It was really frustrating.

But once we’d won our first award, Best Narrative Short at Tribeca, it all changed. The emails started flooding in and I was getting invited to play at festivals. Also, they start to waiver the fees. In the last three months, all the festivals that I’ve been entered into, I haven’t paid for. It doesn’t say that anywhere when you start off! If you make a good film, applying for festivals will get cheaper and cheaper, until it’s free.

How many festivals has The Phone Call played at so far? 

In the one year that it’s been on the circuit, it’s played at 54 festivals, and we’ve won 10 awards.

What are the difficulties of submitting your film in to a festival?

Making applications to film festivals is a full time job; it’s not something that you can do on the side. It’s not just paying out the money to enter; it’s understanding the rules of each festival and filling in the online forms. Absolutely every single festival has different rules, and some of them preclude you from applying to other ones. The applications are so time consuming, but you’ve got to make sure that they’re right.

You used to have to physically post your tapes to apply for festivals. You’d think that it would be a lot simpler now it’s all digital and you can upload your films, but it’s harder. They all have different sorts of portals.The only time we had to send off a hard drive of The Phone Call was to apply for the Oscars. The Oscar form took about two weeks to fill in, there was so much involved. The package I sent was the size of a small car.

Talking tactics – should you focus on entering a couple of festivals, and make sure that you attend them, or enter loads and just pop along to one or two? Is attendance important?

What you’ve got to keep in mind about festivals – and this has happened to me – is that your screening may be at lunchtime on a weekday and it may consist of eight students. There may be no networking opportunities at all. Unfortunately, you don’t know that until you get there.

My advice? Apply to as many festivals as you can, and get in to as many as you can. Then make a call on the ones that you actually want to go to, based on what other people say about them. Out of the 54 film festivals that The Phone Call has played at, I’ve been to 7. Your attendance will not affect the success of the film at the festival, zero percent! I used to think that it would.

Did you learn or gain anything from going to any of those seven festivals?

When I was going to festivals, I’d been directing for a good few years and I already had an agent as well as representation from a production company. I think it depends where you are in your career. People who are earlier on in their career might get more out of it more than I did. Personally, I think that filmmakers should budget more to get their films at festivals, rather than budget to be at festivals.

Which festival award are you most proud of winning?

Tribeca was the big one for me. I’m so glad that I went! I was there to receive the award, and I got to go for lunch with Robert De Niro. That’s when you think – oh hello! If I’d have missed Tribeca, I would have missed out on those amazing experiences.

To what do you attribute the success of The Phone Call?

I worked on the script until I knew it was perfect, and that allowed me to be audacious enough to attract great actors. When you’ve got a great cast, you attract better production value. It’s a snowball effect, and it all starts with your script.

My biggest tip is… if your script isn’t about anything, put it in the bin and start again. If you’ve got a great script, you could shoot it on your mobile phone, and it could be better than a film with a massive crew that’s cost a huge amount of money. It’s all about your script.

How would you describe a film festival to someone who’s never been?

Shit. Brilliant. It’s the worst of times and it’s the best of times, but there’s no way of knowing what it’s going to be like until you actually get there.

Have film festivals helped to raise your profile as a filmmaker?

Yes. But most of that happens online.

When I first started going to film festivals, I used to spend loads of money printing out postcards to leave in the foyer so people knew how to contact you. Now, people already know how to find you. We live in an age where all you need is a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter handle. That’s a good tip - don’t waste hundreds of pounds on postcards or posters, just get on social media! 

What advice would you give to someone thinking of entering their short into a festival?

Find friends, friends of friends, and colleagues who’ll be willing to sit and watch your film before you take it to a festival. Listen to the audience and learn from their reactions - the oohs, the aahs, the laughter and the silences. Tweak your edit based on their responses. I did about ten screenings of The Phone Call before we took it to a festival.

Once you’re at a film festival, make sure that you have your next script ready. When people ask, “what else have you got?” be ready and have something else in your hand. That’s what I’ve learnt.

What’s next for you?

I’ve written a feature film, called Call Girl. Imagine Quentin Tarantino directing Fatal Attraction


All of Mat’s hard work applying to festivals on the Oscar-qualifying list paid off… The Phone Call won in the Live Action Shorts category at the 87th Academy Awards® .