Walk with me to the island of Mallorca, an island of Spain. Mallorca is a place of paradise: rays of sun, vast cerulean oceans, a gorgeous mix of European cultures inhabiting the island, with delicious food and an array of music. Filmmaker and actor Sandra Lipski [previously known by her maiden name, Sandra Seeling] was born in Berlin and grew up in Mallorca. As an adult she moved to New York to develop her craft as an actor, before moving to Los Angeles, where she became a filmmaker. Visiting film festivals all over the world, she saw something that was missing in her home of Mallorca, a film festival that embraces all cultures. Nine years ago, Sandra started the Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival with the theme of “bridging cultures, bridging people.” The festival has grown over the years, and has been making an impact by connecting cultures and people from all over the world.
This year I decided to start a film festival for Cinema Femme. The film festival embraces all the parts of who we are as a magazine, lifting up stories about womxn in film and their allies. The festival will be showcasing short films by emerging and independent female filmmakers. The filmmakers whose work is selected as the best films of their respective categories will be awarded a place in our womxn to womxn mentorship program. There are exciting announcements to come for our August festival and I have Sandra to thank for its progress. Throughout the years, Sandra has acquired a vast knowledge about how festivals work, and how filmmakers should be approaching the festival circuit and market. My conversation with her lays out her journey and her advice during these difficult and unpredictable times for filmmakers and festival directors. Please visit The Festival Key to learn more about Sandra and how she can support your film or festival.
REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up and what brought you to the film industry?
SANDRA LIPSKI: I was born in Berlin, Germany. When I was nine years old my family moved to Mallorca, Spain. When I was 15, in high school, I accompanied a friend to a casting for a TV show. They asked me if I could read a couple lines. I said “Okay, sure”. At that time I did not seriously think about becoming an actress. They cast me in a role. It was really unexpected. I was only supposed to be in the show for two weeks, and then they asked if I would participate in the main cast. It was a weekly TV show.
MARTIN: That’s awesome!
LIPSKI: Yes. My Dad told me that I had to finish high school, we came up with a plan where I’d be on set two or three days a week, and I would be in school for the rest of the week.
MARTIN: Was it was a series in Spain? What was it called?
LIPSKI: It was actually a German TV show that was shot in Spain. It was called “Looking for Paradise – Mallorca” [Mallorca – Suche nach dem Paradies]. They have almost all of the episodes on YouTube now.
MARTIN: What character did you play?
LIPSKI: I played the girlfriend of one of the main characters. We were the teenage romance couple, first kiss, first sex, basically first everything. It was a great introduction into the film business – being on set, learning your lines, and working with the crew. I literally learned everything in those two years about being on a set.
After I finished high school, and my time with the show, I wanted to leave the island and work on my craft. I moved to New York City and went to the Lee Strasberg Theatre School to study acting. After I finished school in NY I came to LA for two weeks to do a workshop. I remember it so well. We were put up in this little motel in the valley called the Sportsmen’s Lodge. It still exists. It was January, pilot season and a lot of actors lived there, definitely a new experience. I did a showcase in front of agents, and this one agent who was repping European actors in LA told me he’d sign me if I moved here. So I packed my bags, and I made the move. I worked a lot and in the beginning it was great. Then the writer strike happened in 2008. During that time I started making my own shorts. That’s when my husband moved to LA. He’s a cinematographer and we started making short films together. He was already doing features and commercials, but I hadn’t had as much experience behind the camera.
MARTIN: Did you write and direct the short films?
LIPSKI: Yes, I did everything. Our first short went to a couple different festivals and I wanted more. My husband encouraged me to attend film school. I was 25 and didn’t want to go back to school for four years. Instead I went to The Los Angeles Film School. I did a one-year program, which is actually a two-year curriculum squeezed into one. Each month, the focus was on a different topic; screenwriting, cinematography etc. In the last two months, you would prep your thesis film, mine was called, “My Mother,” a short film I dearly love and that again went to a lot of festivals. This is when I really understood the power of film festivals, what a festival can mean to a filmmaker, and what it can do for your career.
MARTIN: I’d love to hear more about “My Mother”.
LIPSKI: “My Mother” is a very autobiographical film. It tells the story about Paula, an aspiring female filmmaker, writer and director in Hollywood. Her mother Rita visits her from Europe. Paula takes everything very seriously, and tries to navigate the film industry by the book. Her mother is more open and colorful, a loud character.
MARTIN: Is Rita based on your real mother?
LIPSKI: It totally is. Rita gives Paula that ultimate push to really go for what she wants in her life. Sometimes we don’t want listen to our parents. We want to prove that we can do it on our own. The film is about learning who we really are. It’s about the energy you put out, how you handle yourself in new situations that life throws at you and that sometimes listening to advice from your loved ones can be a positive experience.
MARTIN: I love that. Now as you began your journey as a filmmaker, how did that lead you to starting a film festival [Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival]?
LIPSKI: I wanted to submit my short to a film festival in Mallorca so my family could come and see it. I noticed then that there was no film festival in Mallorca. I had been to tiny film festivals everywhere, and I did not understand why Mallorca didn’t have one. It’s this beautiful island that everyone loves to go to. I met up with my old childhood friend Pau [Vich], he is a business guy who’s lived all over the world. He grew up Mallorca, but, like me, has a big international outlook of the world. I told him “I’m going to do a film festival in Mallorca, I need you by my side.” I needed a business partner, someone who cared about the numbers. He had never heard the words “film festival” before. He agreed and became the festival’s Executive Director. We launched the first festival edition the following fall of 2012.
MARTIN: What steps had to be taken to get started?
LIPSKI: People had to warm up to the idea to support the festival. Nobody knew who I was, or why I wanted to do this festival. It was really discouraging. A couple of years earlier some people tried to do a festival, they received support from the government, but nothing came from it. When I asked for their support in the beginning it was very difficult to get them on my side. I was young and very spontaneous and even without the necessary support, I decided to just “ go for it”.
I had no idea how I pulled off that first festival edition. We had big dreams and welcomed many A-list Spanish actors and directors. When you do something for the first time, you are non-judgmental about it, you have no realistic expectations. It was such a great edition, no dream was too big. The first time you do something, it’s just so delicious.
MARTIN: What was your vision for the festival when it began?
LIPSKI: From the beginning the mission was, “bridging cultures, bridging people.” I see myself as a global citizen. I was born in Germany, raised in Spain, and I’ve lived in the US for many years. I wanted to bring that global feeling to the festival.
MARTIN: I love that.
LIPSKI: The mission is something that is in me, it’s who I am. I identify myself with a lot of different cultures, different countries. A lot of people told me I needed to be more specific about the kind of movies I bring to the festival. EMIFF is a celebration of cultures, with international filmmakers from around the world. We can have different topics, and specific programs, like “female filmmakers from India” and “Queer films US”. But at the end of the day, there is always the component of “bridging cultures, bridging people.”
MARTIN: What does “bridging cultures, bridging people” mean for the festival?
LIPSKI: The films that are invited to the festival must have a component of at least two different cultures represented in the film, this can be reflected in the cast, the story, shooting locations. Or you will see at least two different languages being spoken.
MARTIN: I think that is amazing. Bringing people from different backgrounds, different cultures together on the screen is powerful for people to see. How did the festival go the first year? What kind of feedback were you receiving?
LIPSKI: It was great, considering it was the first year. It was very exciting. The team was only three people. Pau, me and a press girl that we hired. Mallorca is a melting pot of many cultures. There is a big German and British population, along with French, Russian and Swedish communities. I felt like Mallorca did not yet have that one cultural event where everyone felt welcome and would come together.
I wanted to create an event where we could all speak a language we all understand – the language of film – and bring all these cultures together. I wanted everyone to feel invited. In the beginning it was hard to convince the international audience on the island. The locals also weren’t excited in the beginning, like “there’s this German girl who’s doing our festival now.” It took a couple years to get everyone on my side and gain their trust. Now we have build a large community, we all love each other and support one another as much as we can. I knew that if I didn’t quit I would bring everyone together eventually. That is my advice for success; don’t quit.
MARTIN: How many years have you been doing the festival?
LIPSKI: This year will be our ninth year.
MARTIN: Congratulations! Seems like your festival is doing great, and thriving. Which is why, I assume you have become an expert with film festivals and started The Festival Key. What led you to create The Festival Key?
LIPSKI: Filmmakers kept asking me questions; can I submit my unfinished project? How long should my synopsis be? How long is too long for a short film? How do I get my Feature Film into festivals? Film Festival organizers and programmers asked me advice on “how to we build our audience? What should our media strategy look like? What is the best way to approach our sponsors?”
I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I really love giving advice and sharing what I’ve learned throughout the years, but I did not yet feel confident enough to turn it into a business. For a year I thought about how a consulting agency would work to support filmmakers and film festivals. I finally said; ‘OK, I am ready. I have valuable knowledge and information to give. I truly feel like I can support and help someone else grow their business – film or film festival.’ The moment I made the choice to start, clients came into my life and were extremely thankful that The Festival key exists.
MARTIN: During this time of the pandemic, I see your services as very valuable since most festivals are having to adjust to online platforms, cancelling their festivals or delaying festival dates. What is your advice for filmmakers and festivals during this time?
LIPSKI: This is a new world for all of us and we are all adjusting together. We might not yet know exactly what the future of the festival landscape will look like, but it is reassuring that we all are figuring it out together.
It’s definitely a transition period right now. Most of the festivals are postponed, and I think once the stay at home orders are lifted and events are allowed to come back (under new regulations including social distancing, etc.) there will be a wave of festivals happening. All the festivals from spring and summer 2020 will move into fall dates reaching all the way to early 2021. There will be a lot of festivals happening at once, which will be fun, but also a little crazy.
MARTIN: A lot of the filmmakers I spoke to have all of these completed films, and they don’t know what to do with them in the interim. Any advice for them?
LIPSKI: I have filmmaker clients contacting me now saying, “We would love to work with you, but we’re going to wait until things pick back up again.” My response to them is, “Now is the perfect time to work with me and prepare for festival submission. Let’s get everything ready now.” The festivals have not gone away and submissions are open. I advise filmmakers to make sure all of their materials – synopsis, trailer, poster – are in top shape and everything is in the right format on a Google drive with easy access for film festivals and programmers.
I work with them on their personalized film festival strategy list. Which festivals they’d like to submit to. You need to submit now to actually screen at a festival in early 2021. Submissions are open and now that life has slowed down a bit, it is the best time to prepare and get yourself and your film ready. Most of the submission deadlines are being extended, to allow filmmakers more time to hit those early bird deadlines. Why wait until later when the fees go up?
Finally, this is something I always teach my filmmaker clients ‘Build those relationships!’. That is how you’ll get noticed in a sea of submissions. Find out who the programmers are at the festivals you want to submit to, follow them on social media. Like their posts and message them saying, “I just submitted to your festival, I hope you like my film.” A little message goes a long way. Now the next time this programmer watches hours of submissions and they see your film title, they will remember you went the extra mile and made that connection. It makes a huge difference.
MARTIN: Can you give an overview of what you offer with The Festival Key?
LIPSKI: The Festival Key has three sections. Film festival strategies for filmmakers. Consulting for film festivals, which I put into three different categories: the startup festivals that are first year to five years. Young, starting out, finding their way and their place in the festival world. The second category is for festivals that are five to fifteen years. I like to call them my teenage festivals. That’s where you have your vision, you’re going at it for twelve years, and will probably need to be refined in some areas. Then the older ones, fifteen and up. These are the festivals that really know their mission and vision. But maybe after all these years need to implement some changes to stay current. Those are all the topics I touch upon as a consultant, and help them implement.
The third section is event hosting and Q&As. I go to different events, festivals and premieres to host galas, moderate talks, panels or masterclasses (also online). It wasn’t until last year that I hired someone to do the Q&As at EMIFF. We usually do all of our Q&As in German, Spanish, and English. Secretly it is one my favorite things to do at the festival. I love connecting to the filmmakers, soaking in that moment right after a film has screened, engaging in audience questions and steering an insightful and inspiring conversation – it’s such a joy. I love doing it.
MARTIN: Final thoughts?
LIPSKI: Festivals and films are my passion. I love bringing people together. My favorite moment is when the audience comes out of a movie and you feel like it might have just changed their outlook on life a little bit. When people come to a festival that you’ve programmed, and you’ve inspired them to look at the world a little bit differently, that’s like the best thing ever.