Festival rejection blues

 Kevin Smith quote.

From the (now-defunct) Withoutabox message boards, Craig S. writes:

I finished the film. Submitted to Sundance, Santa Barbara, and so on. So far have not be accepted to one festival out of 15 submitions [sic]. The agent just told me he can't find any interest, and wished me good luck on licensing. The people that are in the film are not even interested in seeing it. Woops! Yet, when I watch it, it is a good film. It has a good story, great characters, and some snappy dialogue. All the things I thought a good film is made of. Oh well, better luck next time...

This was my response:

Craig,

I can see why you're frustrated. And why not? At a guesstimated average of $30 per film festival, you've likely spent $450 or more on festival submissions up to this point with exactly bupkis to show for it. As that "better luck next time" phrase at the end of your post reveals, you're about ready to call it a day and get started on the next film.

Here's my advice: don't give up. At least not yet.

First let's look at a few good things about your situation.

#1 - If you haven't been accepted to any film festivals yet, then you haven't given up your world premiere either. Your film is still essentially starting with a blank slate. It could be worse -- like if your film had already had its premiere at the NoPlace Film Festival and you couldn't even offer a more prestigious festival your world premiere.

#2 - You can still go back and fix some of the things that might be wrong with your film. Maybe the sound is bad, or it needs a re-edit to excise ten or twenty minutes of footage that stop the story dead in its tracks. Maybe all your film needs is a bit of extra investment (time, money, talent) to make it acceptable to a wide range of festivals.

#3 - $450 is still less than it would have cost you to hold a four-wall screening, and you wouldn't even have the benefit of experience to let you know that your film was less perfect than you thought. By now your movie been seen by at least two dozen people who watch hundreds of indie films every year; the rejection letters are their way of telling you that your film might need some work.

What to do from here?

A - Call every festival you submitted to and ask to talk to a programmer. Do this in the off season, preferably a month or so after each festival ends so that the new crop of films hasn't erased the previous set from the programmer's mind. That programmer may or may not have seen your film, but they can put you in touch with someone who has if you ask nicely enough. That person may be kind enough to give you some constructive criticism. With 15 festival rejections under your belt there must be someone willing to share an opinion with you about your movie. Ask specifically for constructive criticism and be respectful of the programmer's time. Expect some festivals to give you the runaround and call back if you don't get a return call within a week. Gentle persistence is the name of the game here, but in my humble opinion you've earned the right to be told why your film isn't getting any traction on the festival circuit. Per #2 above, it may be time to make some changes.

B - Resubmit to the festivals that rejected you (and/or apply to a new set of festivals of equal or greater prestige than those to which you applied). After a re-edit (and sometimes even without a re-edit!) your film may still be eligible for submission in the next festival year. Yes, this means delaying your festival dreams for a while, but if you think your film has a shot at the top-tier festivals after your changes then you should start the cycle again from the beginning. (This also gives you some time to save up some extra change from your day job for submission fees.) Shoot for the moon and then adjust your sights downward.

Even if you don't change your movie, consider resubmitting to the festivals for which you are still eligible. Sometimes a film rests on the edge of acceptability, or simply faces a year of extremely stiff competition. Don't forget that your film is judged not only on its standalone merit, but also against all the other entries in the festival. Plus, the judges are human beings slogging through hours of mostly mediocre movies. A submission in the following year may be greeted with friendlier eyes.

C - At some point you may come to the conclusion that a top-tier festival is simply out of reach of the grasp of this particular film. In the brutal light of the typical acceptance rates of those festivals, it's more than likely the truth. It's time to look at smaller festivals where at least your film can be played in front of an audience of independent film fans. Do some obsessively thorough research about the kinds of festivals to which you should be submitting. For every festival submission you send out, visit the web site of 25 festivals and get to know their characters. Look at their past lineups to get a sense of the kinds of films they want. You're searching for a philosophy and a programming style that matches your filmmaking personality.

Once you find a handful of festivals that meet your criteria, arrange them in order of desirability and submit to them in as sensible a manner as you can given their arrangement on the calendar. If you must submit to festivals simultaneously (and it's difficult to avoid this), try to submit in waves to festivals of similar size and desirability. You want to avoid the sticky situation of accepting a slot at a less desirable festival, only to have to pull out when a more desirable festival accepts you at a later date.

D - If you've done all of the above and you're still coming up empty but you still crave that festival experience, you can always try the shotgun approach. [AKA the "pay and spray" method.]  Pick as many small festivals as you can with low entry fees that you can cram into your already depleted budget and submit en masse. Someone somewhere has to accept you, right? 

I don't actually recommend this method -- it's just throwing good money after bad. If you've reached this point even after trying the strategies above, chances are your film is fundamentally flawed. Get as much feedback as you can from festival staff and fellow filmmakers, learn from your mistakes, and start funneling those submission fees into the budget for your next film.