Fast forward to December 1st, 2016, I received the long-awaited 2017 Sundance Film Festival Notification that read:
On behalf of our entire Festival Programming team, I want to thank you for submitting your film to the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately...”
I’ve learned that if the email doesn't start off with “Congratulations” or has the dreaded word “Unfortunately,” then that was the first indicator that I was rejected. Sure, my film, SUBMERGENCE (2016), did not receive validation from the prestigious Sundance where celebrities snowboard in their red carpet suits at Park City; but, regardless, it was programmed into a number of festivals and even garnered several awards. This was my first festival run - an invaluable opportunity which, although filled with many rejection letters, marked my entrance into a new stage of the filmmaking world.
I hope that after you have guilt tripped enough of your friends and family to donate money to your project, injected yourself with countless bags of caffeine to get through production and finally cut together a complete film, this guide will help navigate any questions you may have and help clear the air on festivals. Therefore, here are 7 things I want to share with first-time filmmakers from my process of submitting to film festivals.
Film Festival Press Kit (Electronic)
A press kit is a promotional package that is given to festivals, so they can get briefed about your project and then use the material to promote your film.
The essentials for a great press kit are cast and crew bios, interviews, a set of BTS videos and photos, publicity stills, a stylish poster, trailers, reviews and third-party endorsements, and an engaging synopsis that makes the reader thrilled about watching your film.
Festivals will use press kit material such as trailers or even still-grabs to brag about the films they have accepted on their social media handles and get their audience excited for the showcase. Hence, bringing traction to the filmmakers.
Masashi Niwano, CAAMFest Festival & Exhibitions Director, stated,
“CAAMFest annually receives 700 submissions from all around the globe. The films that immediately stand out either have very solid press kits (with personalized cover letters. Very important!) and/or have received accolades/awards from other festivals. It doesn't hurt to also email film festival programmers and let them know your film has been submitted. The films that are selected vary in production value, content, stage of filmmaker's career, etc. I will say - and I know this is cliche - but we are looking for fresh, unique and authentic stories. When programmers find these films, they will fight to get them into the festival program.”
Submission Platforms: FilmFreeway vs Withoutabox
For the longest time, Withoutabox has been the professional platform that connects filmmakers to film festivals and makes digital submissions to multiple festivals an easy process. However, a new platform by the name of FilmFreeway has come a long way to give Withoutabox some rival competition. FilmFreeway is more intuitive and sometimes cheaper to submit to than Withoutabox.
A majority of independent filmmakers I've talked with seem to prefer FilmFreeway because of its user-friendly interface. However, after using both platforms, Withoutabox to me is still the industry leader for one main reason: they curate a more legitimate list of film festivals. For instance, you can find major festivals like Sundance, Toronto, Seattle, etc. on Withoutabox but not on FilmFreeway. FilmFreeway instead has a longer list of new festivals and no-name festivals - keep in mind that their system also does not appear to be scam-proof.
With countless film festivals popping-up left and right nowadays, I can trust that I am submitting to actual film festivals through Withoutabox since it has been around longer and film festivals will pay thousands of dollars to set-up their entry system because they are serious about what they do. Whereas, FilmFreeway makes it free for both filmmakers and festivals to set up an account, which, to me, makes it sometimes too easy for just anybody to create a “Film Festival.” Fortunately, I have yet to experience a scam myself. However, I have heard horror stories from filmmakers who have attended random film festivals in LA with expectations of a red carpet, a great program of films, VIP treatment, and a proper venue but have only experienced disappointment and regret.
You have your precious film in one-hand, $500 in the other and countless festivals in front of you, all competing for your attention, what do you do? Well, first thing’s first: don’t blow through your money by applying to the first ten festivals that you see on the front page. Applying to festivals is similar to looking at colleges and you want to be selective because each one is going to cost you.
A festival’s submission fee depends on its popularity (the number of submissions they receive) and submission deadline. These fees could range from $0 to $120.
Submit early, early submission costs are exponentially cheaper. Take for example, Sundance. The early submission fee for Sundance is $40 compared to the late submission fee which goes for $80. Also submitting early gives you a higher chance of being selected. If you submit early and the selection committee likes your film then they will mentally put you on the schedule or maybe already give you a slot in the program. However, if you submit late and they like your film, they have to like your film more than something else they already mentally put on the schedule. Basically, submit early and you won’t be graded on a curve.
Submit wisely, I would not recommend submitting late to Sundance unless you personally know someone inside the organization or if you truly believe your content is going to shake the industry. If it’s a medium or lower tier festival, you can get away with submitting by the regular deadline, but I would never recommend submitting late to any festival - at this point, you’re just helping to pay for some other filmmaker’s airfare and hotel.
Most festivals offer a student discount. If you are still a student, take advantage of this opportunity as much as you can - student submissions are cheaper and there are lucrative prizes to be won that can help finance your next project.
Plan a budget for festivals, create an excel sheet to keep track of all your festival submissions and stick with the budget until you win monetary prizes to financially re-fuel your festival run even further. I personally spent way more than I originally planned - I paid $250 for two DCP flash drive copies and $800 on submission fees, a total of $1050. But fortunately, I was able to win most of that money back at festivals by the grace of the man upstairs.
When you are an unknown commodity, you have to pay your dues for your first festival run - I would not recommend emailing festivals and requesting a waiver on your first run - frankly, they are sick and tired of this. However, after you have been around the festival circuit, you may receive an alumni waiver or at least usually a discount from the festivals you have been accepted to in the past - many have guarenteed me that they will waive my future submissions.
30/50/20 Rule of Thumb for Budgeting:
Divide up your budget and use 30% to submit to top tier festivals, 50% to submit to mid-level festivals and the remaining 20% to small/niche festivals according to Noam Kroll. This way you don’t risk not getting into any festivals by only submitting to major festivals and you don’t risk certain high-level exposure by only submitting to small festivals.
I personally put in 30% into small/niche festivals and 20% into top tier festivals instead since I was more interested in what small regional film festivals had to offer - intimate setting, creative edge, personable. Plus I want to submit to festivals that I can actually attend and really get to know the festival coordinators. Nonetheless, this strategy is a great way to spread out your seeds and reap a variety of festivals, each with its own unique culture and experience.
Small/niche festivals can be anything from genre festivals, themed festivals, to your local regional film festival (just about every town in the U.S has one). These festivals usually have a higher acceptance rate, have affordable submission fees, and are a lot of fun to attend because it is a smaller pool of filmmakers, which allows you to enjoy more of the films and have deeper conversations with fellow creatives. You also receive a lot more attention for your film through a Q&A and might even be asked to do a presentation. Do your homework on these smaller festivals before submitting by visiting their website - an organized and worthwhile festival will keep their website and social media handles up to date.
Mid-level festivals like the Savannah Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, Heartland Film Festival, and LA Film Festival are sweet spots for a lot of independent filmmakers because they attract a large audience, award hefty cash prizes, and will usually cover flights and accommodations (these are what I consider baller festivals and are definitely worth researching). But furthermore and more importantly, mid-level festivals also provide your film with relatively good exposure compared to a major festival where huge films may overshadow you in a competitive environment.
Major festivals (Sundance, Telluride, SXSW, SIFF, TIFF, Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Rotterdam) are every filmmaker’s dream, these are the most prestigious of the bunch and can launch a filmmaker’s career. However, chances of getting in these large festivals are 0.01% since they usually receive an average of 15,000 submissions and screen 150 films.
Take advantage of your film’s premiere status and treat it like gold - because it is.
Your film comes with a limited number of premiere statuses that could be a deal breaker for most mid-level or top-tier festivals. The first status you have is a world premiere, then a US premiere, after that it goes by state. For example, California premiere or Boston premiere.
Save your World Premiere and your US Premiere for the biggest festivals that you can get accepted into and everything else will trickle down. Oh, your film had its world premiere at Sundance? Then all the smaller festivals will want to program it into their festival - some will personally reach out to you and even waive your submission fee.
Don't get desperate for a laurel and waste your World Premiere at some unknown, first-year film festival in Kansas, where it will only get recognized by someone’s grandma. This will significantly damage your rate of acceptance to other festivals in the long run even if that happened to be Darren Aronofsky’s grandma.
Colin Blake, Executive Producer of The Alameda International Film Festival, shared,
“The Alameda International Film Festival (AIFF) screened the premiere of a wonderful short film several years ago and we had the good fortune to meet one of the directors and the star when we visited Tokyo later that same year. We shared some sushi and teppanyaki over beers at a restaurant on the 5th floor of a Shinjuku high-rise, and the talk naturally centered on filmmaking and the festival circuit.
We congratulated the director on his achievement and asked how the film did after premiering with us. He looked away for a moment, and then replied, "Well, actually, not too well."
We were shocked. Surely we couldn't have been the only ones to see the merit of his work. Were these other festival producers and their juries so different from ours, were they so out of touch?
We ordered another round, and the director went on to say, "It's not that these other fests weren't interested. It's just that once they heard that the short had already had its World Premiere, they cooled on it significantly."
Two things struck me at the time: 1) This was yet another reminder of AIFF's good fortune in screening so many World and North American premieres over the years, and 2) Some filmmakers may be a bit naive about the significance of that premiere status to a festival.
The bottom line: I'm all the more appreciative of a filmmaker spending that one-time-use premiere token on my festival and anyone who's submitting a movie needs to be aware of its value. As we downed our last Sapporos in that Tokyo restaurant, I knew that this young director was going to be frugal with his premiere status. We were all the more humbled to have a brand new premiere submission from him later that year.”
Filmmakers will often make customized postcards and business cards for their film as well and hand these out during networking events - similar to speed-dating - where you want to market your film to as many filmmakers as possible in the shortest amount of time.
This is also a good time to get yourself a business card so that you can swap contact information in an environment where things are moving quickly and gets very loud and hard to talk - trust me, you will be shouting in most conversations you are in. However, ask for the other person's phone number instead of merely handing them a business card if time allows since that is always the more personal and memorable approach.
Don't get wasted! Yes, enjoy a drink or two because no one likes talking to a stiff log but also remember that this is a business trip and you want to make every impression count.
Research who will be attending the festival. One of the rarest aspects of a film festival is they attract all sorts of industry professionals. You will want to get recognized with these people and leave an impression if you happen to bump into them - which is more often than you would expect.
Film Festivals are Subjective
One time, the founder of a festival personally called me to share how much he enjoyed my film and asked me to attend the festival on the other side of the country. However, they could not cover my $500 flight. So I compared the monetary prizes of the festival with the price of the flight ticket, did my research on past winners and believed that I had a good chance of winning, which would cover my expenses and more. Thus, I flew over and happily received wonderful responses from both the audience and the selection committee. The jury then announced all the winners and honorable mentions but not once was my name called. The film that won first place instead shocked everyone because it was a project that almost did not even make it into the festival program according to the selection committee. How did this film win? Doesn't matter, it is what it is - congratulate that filmmaker, move on, and work even harder. This experience was a valuable reminder that not all judges prefer oranges over apples.
Whether your film gets accepted or not, whether it wins an award or not, whether it gets into Sundance or not, remember that these choices are completely subjective to the person that judges it and is in no way a reflection of your work. Hopefully, you did not become a filmmaker for film festivals, awards and the enchanting spotlight they bring. It becomes easy to forget why we began making films with all the unnecessary distractions that surround us today. However, always circle back to why you decided to pick up that camera in the first place and move onto creating your next passion project - the world will thank you.
Sheila Lynn Bolda, Programming Director of The Savannah Film Festival, said,
“DO NOT TAKE REJECTION PERSONALLY. What works for one festival might not work for another. Content, runtime, scheduling, there are so many factors that go into choosing the films. We choose around 200 from over 3000, that's less than 7%, so in some ways, it is a numbers game. But the solid, original stories, those are the ones that stand out, that we fight for.”
Films get rejected more often than they get accepted and this is usually not because festivals did not like your film but because it genuinely did not fit into their program. Either way, it is not the end of the world if your film does not get into a festival. Film festivals are great for getting your work out there and meeting other filmmakers. However, each film has a life and eventually loses its touch and slowly fades away. Your film almost becomes less relevant because the focus becomes more about you, the filmmaker, and what your next project is. Hence, don’t be too fixated on festivals, just keep creating great content and eventually you will get recognized for it.