The film industry runs on myths. One of them is that there are definitive moves you can make to guarantee your film breaks into the festival circuit. The fact is, technological and social change have meant the market of thousands of pictures being produced each year no longer exists; we are now in a world of millions, upon millions of movies. While this has resulted in a boom of festivals, there is still a crowded field vying for attention. In that case – even if your debut film is dynamite, even if you jump through all the hoops experts insist are golden tips for selection – without the marketing budget of a studio behind you, your independent project will likely find it difficult to find a large platform.
With that being said, there are some simple steps you can take to at least minimise your frustrations submitting to film festivals of all shapes and sizes. Having helped programme festivals across Europe, I have seen behind the curtain first-hand, and in an industry which is notoriously reluctant to give feedback regarding rejections, that has given me some valuable insight into the things that will quickly put festivals off your work. While this list does not include any guarantees of getting you discovered at the next Sundance, then, here are 10 things you need to take care with when submitting to a film festival.
Research the festival
Even before international travel became mind-bendingly complicated due to a global pandemic, it was unreasonable to expect filmmakers to attend every festival they submitted to. On the surface, festival programmers typically recommend you do that to understand the type of films they are looking for, and maybe network to find an ‘in,’ but less transparently they would also like you to buy tickets, fly out and boost their attendance figures. Fortunately, there are cheaper ways to research festivals before you enter. Previous programmes for festivals are typically available online, and those from one or two years ago will feature shorts which – after completing exclusive runs on the festival circuit – are usually available on Vimeo or YouTube, so you can get a decent understanding of what programmers are looking for. Meanwhile, their filmmakers will usually be happy to hear from appreciative viewers years after their film ceased to be ‘relevant,’ so you can network in that way – or, if you want to talk to programmers directly, they are pretty easy to contact on LinkedIn and other professional networking sites.
Read the $%!#ing rules
Honestly, I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Submitting a film to a festival usually comes with a fee – and for independent filmmakers on a tight-budget, that means you only have so many shots before you’re out of funds. In this case, throwing away your savings on festivals which you have not even ensured would accept your film is little short of madness. If that weren’t enough of an incentive, you also need to know which rights you are signing over to a festival when you send your work to them. Will they be reserving the right to include it in their film market after the closing of their physical event? Will it even be part of a physical event, or will it be screened online? Are there special stipulations in the rules, as with Indy Film Library, where your film will receive public review? If you simply spam your work to every festival open for submissions, you are liable to get your fingers burned. In our case, the IFL inbox is no stranger to filmmakers – some of whom even got decent feedback – who “didn’t realise” their work would be critiqued publicly, and are “uncomfortable” with such a review. Some even make idle threats, but ultimately to no avail. Once you send your film out, you have signed up to the Ts and Cs. So read them.
Never submit unfinished work
Festival screeners and programmers often view hundreds or thousands of films over the course of their submission process. That means they have limited time to devote to each entrant – and certainly they do not have time to wait and see how your end product turns out. Even if your mid-way project has good elements about it, the screeners have no idea whether those factors will be in place in your definitive cut. Placeholder music you can’t obtain rights to might be replaced and entirely change the feeling of a scene. A sloppy re-edit might entirely alter the course of the plot that they previously felt was developing at a great pace. Rather than taking a chance on what might be, it’s more likely that festivals will prioritise the stacks of completed films of the same quality of yours also sitting in their inbox.
Attach relevant promotional materials
Again, there are no guarantees in this game, but making life easier for a festival in the rush of putting their programme together will always earn you a few brownie points. As well as screening and selecting films, festivals need to compile promotional materials to get people excited for the events they put on. Few things in this world will elicit a weary sigh from a programmer as quickly as a project submitted without a trailer, or high-res stills from the film itself. Worse still, maybe you have included high-res images – but they are of you in an ‘action pose,’ toying with an expensive-looking camera, or conversing with cast members at the craft services table. Those are not images which any festival is going to include on a poster – and if you are lucky enough to get into the selection, surely you want to do everything you can to get it highlighted?
Properly list your credits
Festivals typically award a range of different prizes to the films they select – and they do not just relate to directors, writers or lead-actors. Be mindful of the efforts your crew put in, and the fact they might have done a good enough job to be commended for their work. If submitting via a platform like Film Freeway, the submission form has a section for credits – and festivals use this, rather than your end credits (which may be in a foreign language they will struggle to transcribe, before translating), to see who did what. If you do not bother to list who edited, scored, or directed the photography of your film, among other important tasks – and so many directors don’t – you are once again making the life of festival workers harder than it has to be. And believe me, if they are choosing between your work and one of a similar standard, for the last spot in a selection, it is little things like this that can become a factor.
If you are lucky enough to be selected for a festival, you cannot simply lie back and act like your job is done. First and foremost, you need to clarify which format the festival needs to receive your work for public screening in – be it a file, a physical copy, or a web-link – and then send it to them in good time. Some festivals will have a cut-off point, at which either they shed films from their programme, or replace them with filmmakers who they can more easily reach. At the same time, communicate clearly with the festival about your intention to attend. Every event has prime slots, and ones which are less important. One of the factors which helps determine which films take which positions is whether the director or cast will be there for a Q&A, or to interact with the audience. If you are the type to say nothing until the day of the event, then show up on the day to scream at a festival organiser for placing your film at midday on Thursday, really you only have yourself to blame.
No hidden fees
This is essentially part of ‘read the rules,’ but a special emphasis has to be put on this really. In my time with festivals, I have seen multiple filmmakers wait until selection to spring a “screening fee” on the organisers. Presumably if you are having to submit to festivals, you are not in a position where distributors are throwing themselves at your feet for the right to screen your film. The idea you could then hold a festival to ransom, even as it is about to give your film a platform it has been otherwise unable to obtain, is a disingenuous and bizarre own-goal. Programmers don’t respond well to such demands, and will universally bin your project from their selection.
Take feedback seriously
One of the key factors behind the foundation of Indy Film Library was the fact film festivals typically do not offer reasons for why they reject films. It is still unheard of for festivals to offer the more detailed critiques that we do – and with the hectic nature of running a festival, that is never going to change. However, in the event that a festival does get in touch to tell you what you might have done better, or how you might get selected next time, appreciate how rare and valuable that advice is. However small they are, take your notes seriously – and don’t throw your toys out of the pram just because the programmer doesn’t see your project as the masterpiece you do.
We have established how crowded the field is, and that selection to any form of festival is therefore progress. With that being said, don’t let it go to your head. If an event in rural Tasmania selects your work for screening, and you make the effort to go, don’t expect a red-carpet event with thousands of attendees – and certainly don’t start throwing a wobbler when that is not what greets you there. Someone saw something in your film, and tried to give it a platform to the best of their abilities. At the same time, don’t think just because you garnered one or two wreaths that you are now Martin Scorsese. People will still have constructive criticism as to how you can improve – turn your nose up at it at your own risk.
Seek a second opinion
If the number of festivals saying yes to you doesn’t start increasing after a few attempts, it is essential that you take a step back and look at what you are producing. Are you really being innovative? Do you have something new to say? Are you doing it in a unique way? Determining this, or how to change direction, is easier said than done though. After all, every filmmaker is deeply emotionally invested in the success of their various projects. In this case, you need to look to someone else for feedback. Avoid echo-chambers like social media – where friends and family will likely praise your work on the basis of knowing and liking you – or YouTube, where many commenters simply set out to be as cruel as possible. If possible, consult with other filmmakers who have played at festivals to show them your work, or send your project to a feedback service like Indy Film Library. You might not like hearing that parts of your work are sub-standard – but that’s exactly what you need if you are going to move forward as an independent filmmaker.